When the Minnesota Vikings' Brad Sorensen tossed a 28-yard touchdown pass to Jhurell Pressley near the end of the first half of a game against the Rams last season, it set off a spectacle never before seen at a Super Bowl, let alone a preseason game in September.
As fans cheered the play, newly christened U.S. Bank Stadium grew dark for a brief moment before the seating bowl was bathed in purple and the field lighting began to race — rows upon rows of light fixtures flashing left to right in succession — resembling for a few seconds a supersized 1970s game show set.
"That touchdown was so exciting it dimmed the lights at U.S. Bank Stadium!" exclaimed play-by-play announcer Paul Allen over the Vikings radio network. Color analyst and former Viking Pete Bercich added, "I'm amazed. I'm speechless almost — with the dimming of the lights and the purple and the lights that come off upstairs."
The NFL's official Twitter account piled on the praise, captioning a clip of the play and its aftermath, "Whoa... This @Vikings TD dimmed the lights in the stadium. Literally."
Connecting digital assets
In quite a literal sense, stadium illumination has gained rock star lightshow status, with control capabilities far exceeding the simple instant-on/off advantage that LED technology holds over traditional high-intensity discharge sports fixtures. LED systems can be programmed to make the lights dim, race, flash like paparazzi, even spell out entire words in a bank of fixtures otherwise aimed at the field. Turn on specific fixtures and highlight only the area of the soccer pitch where a penalty kick is about to take place. Want to create a pinwheel effect inside each individual fixture? LED can allow you to do that, too
"We'll give you — in effect — infinite control of that light to create any type of optic you'd like to," says Mike Lorenz, president of Eaton's Ephesus Lighting, which outfitted U.S. Bank Stadium with its special effects capabilities. "You can do whatever your creativity will you allow you to do."
Not unlike the preset prompts on a scoreboard, field lighting can be programmed with "a touchdown setting, a player introduction setting — you might have a halftime setting or even a special 'guy hits a game-winner' setting," Lorenz says. "You can basically preset the system based on whatever settings you'd like to create."
Video boards keep getting bigger and brighter. Ribbon boards ring nearly every professional and college venue built today. It only makes sense to take advantage of the power displayed in a stadium's field lighting from a fan experience perspective. "To think you've got 500 lights in a stadium, and suddenly this lighting system that's been pretty static starts flashing or scrolling or turning on and off quickly in a large environment. It's pretty inspiring," Lorenz says. "Now you can use all the digital assets in a stadium for the purpose of entertaining the fans."
Connecting digital assets should be a key focus of today's stadium operators, according to Manuel Ooman, who handles professional systems product marketing for Philips Lighting North America. Ooman refers to LED lighting as not just digital lighting, but "connected lighting," which fits the company's "Internet of Things" mindset. "Connecting not just the pitch or field lighting, but connecting that with, for example, the facade lighting, connecting that with colored lights in the bowl if you want, connecting to the lighting in the lounges to create a much bigger fan experience," he says.
As stadiums are increasingly called on to host other, non-sporting events, the flexibility afforded by today's state-of-the-art stadium lighting assumes even greater importance. "With HID lights, once you turned them on, you didn't want to turn them off," says Jeff Rogers, vice president of sales at Musco Lighting. "Now, the field-of-play lights can become part of the sports presentation, they can become — for lack of a better term — part of the rock 'n' roll show, if you choose them to be."
There are limits to the field-lighting-as-entertainment concept. There is a greater initial investment in LED technology, and at the highest levels of competition — where television broadcast dictates lighting requirements during live action on the field — a completely different set of RGB (red, green, blue) LED fixtures are optimal to, say, flood fans in the seating bowl with colored light. Add to that the sheer size of stadiums, which makes replicating the sort of visual impact of colored lighting effects contained within indoor arenas all the more challenging.
"Our primary focus at Musco Lighting is to provide high-quality light for the field of play, and that is a white LED light source," says Rogers, adding that RGB fixtures can produce white light, but not as efficiently as those designed solely for white light. "Red, green, blue is typically done with a completely separate luminaire. You're probably going to mount them in similar locations but aim them in different directions. With the field-of-play lighting, you're definitely trying to target the field of play. The red, green, blue, you may be trying to get more light in the seats. We believe the rock 'n' roll show should be separate from the field of play."
That's not to say that field-of-play lighting can't enhance actual rock 'n' roll concerts in multipurpose venues. "Just using the field lighting as part of the light show at a rock concert completely surprises the audience," Ooman says. "The amount and intensity of light that suddenly is made part of the show is unprecedented and creates a real 'wow' experience for fans." Same goes for prerecorded music played before, during and after games. Says Rogers, "At Emirates Stadium in the UK, where Arsenal plays in the Premier League, we've done extensive work with them to program music into the on/off of the lights."
"The cool thing is you can synchronize to music," Lorenz adds. "So you basically can have a light show now that is choreographed with a song."
It's the on/off nature of such effects that still leaves some stadium operators a bit reticent. "You've got some folks who are very, very conservative who say, 'Hey, I don't want to start screwing around with the lights, because what happens if I can't get back to sports mode? Then I've got a problem, right?' " says Lorenz, explaining that LED lighting is already pulsing — just at a rate so fast it's imperceptible. "That light's actually pulsing on and off thousands and thousands of times a second. So now what you're really doing is you're altering that pulsing, and saying, 'These go faster, these go first, these go second.' There really is no operational risk in going from one mode to the other."
The more creative stadium operators are starting to see the possibilities. "When we first introduced it, people kind of scratched their head and said, 'Yeah, but what am I going to do with that? I just want it to go on and off, because that's my primary role with the sports lighting,' " Lorenz says. "But as game producers started getting creative and realizing this system can be used to create special effects at the venue, they started asking, 'What else can it do?' "
Gearing up for the future
Little changed in HID technology over the decades that it dominated sports lighting, but LED technology is evolving rapidly, says Eric Boorom, owner of Qualite Sports Lighting. Qualite introduced its first LED product on April 20, 2016, and already it makes up the majority of the company's backlog of orders. And while it hasn't entered the field-lighting-effects market yet, Boorom knows that's the future.
"We've designed our system to be modular, meaning as new technology becomes commercially available, both in the chip phase and the driver phase, we can actually switch out our drivers, switch out our boards — i.e. our chips — and that creates a lot of flexibility," he says. "You don't have to scrap the system and buy all new fixtures. It's literally plug and play. So as that technology envelope continues to push forward, we'll have the ability to not only start to offer that technology, we'll have the ability to retrofit existing installations."
Qualite fixtures are designed to be upgraded at a fraction of the cost of the original installation and with access to interchangeable chips and drivers afforded by a single tool: the screwdriver. "With technology moving as fast as it does in the LED space, it was just so blatantly obvious to us that we had to make it super easy to upgrade our system," Boorom says.
Calls for special-effects lighting are coming from all corners of the sports landscape — from a dirt-track racing venue in upstate New York to high schools in football-crazed Florida and Texas. One otherwise meaningless touchdown during a preseason NFL game in Minnesota spoke volumes to Lorenz. "That was kind of an indication to me that, wow, we're now having sportscasters talk about these lightshows creating more excitement at the venue," he says.
The eyes of stadium operators have been opened, too. "People ask, 'So where is this going?' Our view is that where it goes is out of our control," Lorenz says. "Now that we're enabling the industry with technology, I think people are starting to get very creative, and my expectation is that over the next few years we are going to see a lot more progression in this area of sports lighting."
This article originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Shining Moments" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.