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JUMBO DREAMS
JACK MCCALLUM
January 26, 2009
THE GIANT VIDEO SCREEN, THAT ELECTRIC MIRROR OF OUR SPORTS CULTURE, HAS TRANSFORMED THE WAY WE WATCH GAMES—AND EVEN THE WAY THEY'RE PLAYED
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January 26, 2009

Jumbo Dreams

THE GIANT VIDEO SCREEN, THAT ELECTRIC MIRROR OF OUR SPORTS CULTURE, HAS TRANSFORMED THE WAY WE WATCH GAMES—AND EVEN THE WAY THEY'RE PLAYED

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THE SMALL, pyramid-shaped wrestling scoreboard rests on a landing inside the headquarters of Daktronics, a scoreboard company in Brookings, S.D., about 55 miles north of Sioux Falls. Anyone captivated by the history of scoreboards should make a pilgrimage to this quotidian shrine and pay homage to the wrestling board's MATCH PERIOD TIME ADVANTAGE MATCH-SCORE simplicity, for it is a pivotal link between the unassuming boards of yesteryear and the riotous electronic Goliaths of today.

Daktronics was founded in 1968 by two South Dakota State electrical-engineering professors, Aelred Kurtenbach and Duane Sander, who'd been dismayed by the relentless exodus of the state's brightest engineering students. Daktronics began by designing and manufacturing electronic voting systems for state legislatures. "That kept the lights on around here for a couple years," says Reece Kurtenbach, Al's son, who now heads up the company's live-events division. Everything changed on the day the South Dakota State wrestling coach asked Daktronics to design a matside wrestling scoreboard. "It was a simple engineering problem," says Al Kurtenbach, who's still chairman of the company's board of directors.

The wrestling boards sold quickly, and orders came in for others. Daktronics moved on to boards for high school, college and minor league sports. More orders came in. Can you make a judo board? the engineers were asked. Sure can. Hey, soccer doesn't have a distinctive board; can you design one? Swimming, diving and taekwondo boards followed. Scoreboards for All Sports became the company slogan, in time for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, for which Daktronics made all the major boards—necessitating a quick study of exactly what the hell a biathlon is. Today, Daktronics has scoring and/or display equipment in 27 of 31 NFL stadiums, 25 of 30 major league stadiums, 19 of 29 NBA arenas, 21 of 30 NHL venues, six of Major League Soccer's seven purpose-built stadiums and hundreds of college venues.

Daktronics' story is amazing: a simple idea turned into a manufacturing operation with 3,000-plus employees and revenues of $500 million. It still sits just off I-29, on the treeless, windswept South Dakota flatland. The operation has a mom-and-pop feel: The affable Kurtenbach, 75, still rambles around dispensing sage advice, and Midwestern hospitality prevails throughout the facility. There's a fingers-crossed Daktronics tradition of calling the scoreboard business "recession-resistant." But while it's a major player, it competes against a global giant, Mitsubishi. The brain trust in South Dakota constantly looks for ways to implement new technology in scoreboards, to enhance what everyone in the board biz calls "the stadium experience."

Still Al Kurtenbach says that thinking ahead of the curve is not nearly as important as talking to people to see what they want. "I always tell our guys," he says, "'We didn't hire you to play God.'"

THERE IS, though, something celestial about the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington, Texas, which is scheduled to open before the 2009 season. Two gently curving steel arches, each 1,225 feet long, form a retractable roof and give a reaching-for-the-sky feel to the edifice. That pleases Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who, one supposes, would never rule out playing God. The stadium's cost is estimated to be $1.1 billion. Naming rights are still available, in case you've got a little extra cash.

Such a bold, spit-in-the-eye-of-recession venue needs a bold score-telling, product-selling, emotion-shaping mechanism, of course, and so this glittering Texas palace will feature the apotheosis of the scoreboard: the NFL's first center-hung board ( Jones's idea), which spans 60 yards and looms 90 feet above the field—higher, the Cowboys hope, than any punt could ever reach. Made by Mitsubishi (the Daktronics boys were a little bummed that they didn't land this one), the board is 160 feet wide, 72 feet high and will weigh about 600 tons when the electronics are installed. The Statue of Liberty could fit into its frame. It is as yet unnamed, but, as the world's largest scoreboard, its moniker needs to eclipse Godzillatron. Titanotron, perhaps? The board display includes 10,584,064 LEDs and has a pixel pitch of 20 mm—we don't know exactly what that last thing means, but we're still impressed.

"What we wanted to do was really step out into the melding of technology and fan experience," Jones said recently in his office at the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters. "[Former Cowboys president] Tex Schramm sat right on that couch and told me, 'Jerry, we can't have a studio game.' We have to have the pageantry, the crowds, the excitement. We are not selling football games—we are selling events."

To emphasize that point, Jones contrasts the new Cowboys stadium with its Arlington neighbor, Rangers Ballpark, the classic old-timey stadium where a big league baseball team plays beneath a modest scoreboard. "Now, I think that park is beautiful, just beautiful," says Jones, "but it's not us. That's the past. This is about the future! The spectacle! Our football scoreboard just wouldn't work in a baseball setting."

His comparison almost demands an appearance by the late George Carlin to update his old football-versus-baseball routine. Baseball is a sport governed by a simple statistics-driven scoreboard that in no way intrudes on the idyllic pastime below. Football demands a Brobdingnagian compendium of collected data offered in an extravagant explosion of color, a mind-altering orgy of sight and sound!

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