Wednesday, 17 October 2012

The Scoreboard: A display of practicality

I’m embarrassed to say it, but I used to have a bit of a thing about scoreboards when I was younger. Stadium scoreboards, game show scoreboards, cricket scoreboards… you name it, I loved it.

There was something about those static signs  with changeable numbers that had me transfixed as a kid. If someone scored a point in a football match or on a TV quiz show, I’d wait with eager anticipation to see the scoreboard update the total, be it manually or digitally. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I loved the magisterial sense of purpose that a scoreboard possessed.

This blog doesn’t take TV nostalgia as its subject, else you’d be spending the next 15 minutes reading about It’s a Knockout or Family Fortunes. Instead I shall turn my attention towards the humble football scoreboard, and they don’t come much humbler than the one installed at Wembley Stadium around the time of the 1966 World Cup.

Essentially this was a single-line display showing the two competing teams and the score. Being very much old-tech, the scoreboard was literally just a printed  or painted sign with white characters on a black background along with those all important changeable numbers. And those numbers needed some effort to change as the full set were available as individual tiles that had to be lugged around and slotted into place by a couple of men in white coats whenever anyone scored. It was simple, but it worked.

After a while, Wembley put in place an electronic scoreboard which, compared to its predecessor must have seemed like it had arrived from another planet. Using a vast array of light bulbs switched on and off in distinct configurations, rudimentary characters could shine out from the inky black background to tell the crowd what the score was and also who had scored. Such electrical wizardry can't have been lost on a generation eager to see technological advancements improving their game-viewing experience.

Around the UK, scoreboards of all kinds had appeared at football grounds right from the very early days but they never really had the 'wow' factor, nor did they become a universal feature. Scoreboards (old-fashioned or new) were high-maintenance and often expensive so only the most committed clubs went out of their way to get one.

Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground got an electronic one around the time of the 1966 World Cup, but like so many of their day, it had its faults. Blown bulbs and faulty mechanisms meant text was displayed with letters missing or even shown on a different area of the scoreboard. After a while, fans got used to the garbled messages and even grew to like them as a distraction from the action taking place on the pitch.

Fully digital scoreboards like Wednesday's were slow to make an impact and venues hesitantly looked for a compromise. Despite the 1970's beginning on the crest of a scientific NASA wave, the greatest tournament on the planet was still relying on name cards and a handful of bulbs to tell people what they needed to know. If it wasn't for the opportunity to raise some money from the advertising space it provided, many scoreboards probably wouldn't have even seen the light of day.

In the end, our first sight of a new-age scoreboard didn't arrive in England or South America, but from the one place most people least expected it. Over in the United States, the occasional blown bulb wasn't going to stop NASL clubs making a song and dance about the new-found sport they were purveying.

With players like Franz Beckenbauer, George Best and Pele in town, fans needed to be reminded about the razzmatazz they were witnessing, or at least reminded who it was they were watching.

In addition to the basic electronic scoreboards already resident at some NFL and baseball stadia, bigger, more advanced displays cropped up at a small selection clubs across the country. Many of them not only displayed the score and scorers but also entertained the fans with animated imagery and messages.

With such extravagance creeping into the world game, it was hardly surprising that Subbuteo updated their own scoreboard accessory to a more modern version in 1978. The World Cup that year reinforced the notion (at Buenos Aires at least) that a new technological age had dawned, yet actually the rate of progress was still painfully slow. Even in Spain four years later, the old hand-painted name plates and tiles were still being used.

It would ultimately be up to the major stadia of the world to lead the way where modern scoreboards were concerned. At seemingly every major Cup Final on every continent of the world, scores and scorers were illuminated for ticket-paying supporters with great efficiency and clarity. Huge matrices arrived to give displays better clarity and definition, to say nothing of bigger text. Yet just as soon as they'd reached the peak they were always destined for, traditional scoreboards were starting to see the writing on the wall. (Or should that be 'board'?)

By the mid-1990's, Sony's Jumbrotron system was appearing at some of the world's major musical and sporting events, affording spectators the chance to see real-time video on enormous screens. The ability to provide people not just with text-based information but moving pictures and action replays left the traditional scoreboard looking rather old-fashioned and redundant all of a sudden. Even down-at-heel football clubs across the UK saw the potential to attract fans, even if it meant snapping up cruder, cheaper versions of Sony's big screen.

And so we find ourselves in 2012, an age where virtually every Premier League ground seems to have a big video screen tucked away in at least one corner of the ground. For all that, however, some clubs have remained true to the old virtues, believing that a simple scoreboard should not be a big distraction to the things happening on the pitch. Therein lies hope for the future - a reminder that sometimes we can learn a lot from the things we learned in the past. Video screens are all well and good, but the scoreboards of days gone by told us exactly what we needed to know in a beautifully simple way.


  1. I had a Subbuteo scoreboard.

    Used to love the old one at Windsor Park.

    1. Subbuteo scoreboards were great, weren't they?!?! Simply designed, but effective... :)