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January 19, 2004

Scoreboards Are Entertainment Centers

Dedicated alum Jake Aukeman travels 450 miles to attend Ohio State football games. He’d been summoned to the Ohio Stadium scoreboard booth for his computer animation expertise. His fee? A bird’s-eye view of his beloved Buckeyes. “It’s definitely worth the drive to be able to take in an OSU football game and contribute to the game day atmosphere,” says Aukeman.

The scoreboard staff is counted on to help create a stadium experience that transcends sport itself. “We understand that it’s more than just a game,” says Russ Jenisch, scoreboard director for the Cincinnati Reds. “We want fans to leave with a smile on their face (win or lose), saying, ‘I got my money’s worth because I was entertained.’ ”

It takes a wide range of skills required to complete today’s myriad scoreboard tasks, and staffing is a challenge. “I turn over a lot of rocks,” says Jenisch. According to Brandon Verzal, Seattle Mariners video producer, the average MLB scoreboard crew numbers 15 workers. Scoreboard directors are in near-constant headset communication with everyone. “It’s organized chaos,” says Jenisch, “It’s a multitasking skill; you’re listening, you’re looking, you’re talking.”

Stroll through Great American Ball Park and you’ll find eight scoreboards: a monochrome matrix board, a full-color video board, two 230-foot-long ribbon boards, a scoreboard chronicling other league games, a scoreboard that monitors pitch speed, and two circular LED boards that serve as the paddlewheels on a steamboat “home run” feature — plus sponsorship signage.

All scoreboard personnel work from a master script detailing what happens on each scoreboard and when. Scripts are usually compiled days in advance by someone in the marketing department.

Unlike years ago, most pro teams now employ at least one or two full-time scoreboard specialists. That’s not so much a reflection of the growing sophistication of today’s scoreboards as it is a desire to enhance production possibilities, according to Verzal. “Teams had previously been contracting with a production company to run the show,” he says. “They didn’t have as much creative control that way. If they wanted special videos, they’d have to contract with that company again to do something above and beyond the initial contract.”

Aukeman had one of his football animations pulled from Ohio State’s rotation following the 2002 home opener, because an associate AD deemed it too political. Titled “Strategery,” the screen depicted George W. Bush with a thought bubble filled with X’s and O’s — a tribute to comedian Will Farrell’s impersonation on “Saturday Night Live.” The NCAA currently has no guidelines regarding scoreboard programming. Self-policing is the norm, plus individual athletic conferences often create scoreboard guidelines, usually pertaining to the use of controversial replays and the fair treatment of opposing teams (no band or canned music once a team breaks its huddle, for example).

The creative aspects of scoreboard show production make the work seem less like work. “It’s quite satisfying to have your work displayed on a 30-foot-high screen in front of 100,000 fans,” says Aukeman. Verzal, who credits his years on the University of Nebraska’s HuskerVision staff for helping him land a job with the KC Royals upon graduation in 2000, found that the average amount paid per game to freelance scoreboard staff working for the 15 MLB teams that participated in his survey was $1870. “There are people who can make a pretty good living doing this,” says Jenisch, who paid freelancers just under $200,000 total in 2003.  (Athletic Business  January 2004)