Scoreboards and signage, among a small facility's biggest upgrades, require financial and aesthetic creativity.

Last November, at the Portland Trailblazers' 2005-06 season home opener, the NBA debuted the league's first courtside digital-display signage. The 58-foot-long rear-projection system at the Rose Garden's center court consists of 16 digital displays encased in padded modules that provide advertising, statistics and other information. Though launched amid concern that it may potentially prove distracting to players, the technology signals the next step in sports venue signage - one that creates more revenue opportunities for venues like the Rose Garden while enhancing the spectator experience.

With similar intentions, Dolphin Stadium in Miami will show off what is thought to be the world's longest continuous digital LED fascia display inside a sports venue when it debuts during the 2006 NFL season. The new display will measure approximately 2,105 feet long and surround the entire seating bowl. Mounted below the stadium's suite level, the ribbon board will complement two of the world's largest high-definition LED video displays, located behind each end zone.

While such mind-stretching installations - mere fantasies not long ago - are unlikely to trickle down to the NCAA Division II and III, junior college and high school levels anytime soon, other advancements that initially made their mark in the professional and Division I ranks have begun appearing in smaller facilities. Many such technologies have become more readily available, and affordable, and thus more accepted by the sports community.

For example, last fall the Northwest Independent School District in Justin, Texas, opened a 9,000-seat high school stadium that will eventually feature a $1 million scoreboard boasting replay capability and space for 16 corporate advertising sponsors.

"Everybody's updating right now. The systems that are designed and manufactured today are much more reliable and pleasant-looking. They create more excitement for spectators and players," says Mike Evke, president of Eversan Inc., a scoreboard and signage manufacturer based in Whitesboro, N.Y. "Other than the appearance factor, though, not much has changed. Twenty years ago, you looked at a scoreboard and saw `Home' and `Guest,' and today you still see `Home' and `Guest.'"

But today, the guests - both fans and opposing players - expect the home team to offer in-game experiences similar to the ones that can be found at big-time college and professional venues. Those expectations have put tremendous pressure on facility operators to provide equipment that, while less costly than it once was, may still require corporate sponsorship dollars to make financing feasible.

"The trickle-down effect has always been in effect, beginning with the first scoreboard featuring advertising," says Jeff Reeser, national sales manager for Fair-Play Scoreboards in Des Moines, Iowa. "Advertising and sponsorship are now commonplace at all levels."

The desire of operators of smaller facilities to attract more fans and keep them entertained has hastened this trickle-down effect, according to Jeff Morgan, regional sales manager for Nevco Scoreboard Company in Greenville, Ill. "The revenue-generation part of it is the result of there being fans in the seats," he says. "The more fans who are in the seats, the more attractive it is for local businesses to advertise on that structure. LED products, a video screen or just bigger signage are things the fans like to see and have come to expect when they go to watch a game."

Some facilities, however, are better at upgrading than others. "Organizations that still have the older, light bulb-style scoreboards may feel some pressure to upgrade their scoreboard to the improved LED technology to take advantage of the many benefits this technology has to offer," says Bethany Reeder, director of marketing for Varsity Scoreboards in Murray, Ky., citing significant energy savings as one of the built-in advantages of modern-day boards. "Even though school budgets are tighter than they have ever been, funding isn't necessarily becoming a greater challenge for these facilities, because they are finding more innovative ways of securing sponsorships to help pay for the cost of the scoreboards."

"School officials may buy a scoreboard with bond money, but they're not going to buy one with general funds," adds Jim Bishop, owner of Spectrum Scoreboards in Houston, one of a handful of manufacturers that - to an increasing extent over the past five years - have been helping financially strapped organizations secure sponsorships, sometimes through third parties.

Daktronics, a Brookings, S.D-based manufacturer, helped find advertisers for the Northwest ISD scoreboard in Texas, including the Church at Trophy Lakes (proving that practically any organization is worth soliciting) and a Pepsi bottler. But fewer high schools are relying on soft-drink companies to bear the financial burden of scoreboard purchases and installations, manufacturers say, as school districts continue to eliminate junk-food vending machines from their buildings. (At least one scoreboard manufacturer, however, predicts that some soft-drink companies will aggressively re-enter the sponsorship market when they begin offering more healthful beverages.)

Last year, the Neenah (Wis.) School Board began accepting additional corporate sponsors beyond Royal Crown Cola for several of its scoreboards, soliciting local businesses as diverse as credit unions and safety consulting companies. And in Illinois, one high school's booster club proposed a price increase for reserved-seat season tickets to football games, with the difference to be deposited in a fund to replace several scoreboards. But the district shot down the idea, questioning the school's right to sell rights to seats initially purchased at taxpayer expense.

Scoreboards aren't the only product category that can help operators of smaller venues spruce up their facilities and make game day more appealing for players, coaches, fans and sponsors. Among the less technologically advanced visual amenities that are becoming more common:

Electronic displays with LCD monitors can be posted in a high school lobby or a venue's concessions area with video feed from the game, a season-highlights loop, concessions specials and other promotional material.

Monochrome scrolling message boards can provide opportunities to relay sponsor promotions, player and team statistics, fan messages, and details about upcoming games and other events.

Colorful championship banners and other eye-catching static signage in gymnasiums, lobbies and concourses can feature strategic placement of sponsors' logos in a lower corner or across the top.

These types of displays allow a more diverse mix of businesses, both large and small, to grab a share of the school's real estate. "There are a lot of tasteful ways to do it and still give the sponsors recognition," says Mark Steinkamp, marketing and sales support manager for Daktronics.

Additionally, customizing scoreboards and static signage with school colors - emblazoning black-and-orange tiger stripes on large scoreboard panels, for example - can create feelings of ownership and pride among a school community. Likewise, scoreboard panels, electronic and static signs, or banners donated in honor of a student-athlete, administrator or alum (with that person's name clearly visible) make a strong statement and add a more dramatic personal touch. "If somebody donates a scoreboard, or anything, in memory of someone else, that's much better than a Coke or Pepsi sign," Evke says.

With plenty of aesthetic, technological and funding options from which to choose, owners of smaller venues now have more creative possibilities than ever. Says Morgan, "It's just now getting to the point where operators of these types of venues feel comfortable that they can raise enough money to move up to certain products."