When taxpayers drop millions on a new ballpark or arena, it's
almost always a good deal for a town. That town is Brookings,
S.Dak., a remote plains burg where wind-farm turbines might soon
outnumber people. Brookings (pop. 18,504) is, by virtue of a few
quirks of fate, home to the country's leading maker of sports
video scoreboards, Daktronics.
It's a good business to be in. Since 1994 Daktronics' annual
sales have jumped from $41 million to $177 million, and its
workforce has nearly tripled, to 1,473 employees. Its stock,
publicly traded on the NASDAQ market, has risen more than 50% in
the past year. This spring the company installed the largest
sports scoreboard in North America, a 36-by-149-foot behemoth at
Jacobs Field in Cleveland.
As unlikely as its locale is the fact that Daktronics initially
had nothing to do with sports. The company was formed in 1968 by
Aelred Kurtenbach and Duane Sander, two South Dakota State
engineering professors. Raising money from other professors and
people in Brookings--"whoever might have $1,500 bucks to put in,"
says Kurtenbach, 70--they began making electronic voting systems.
The sports breakthrough came a few years later, thanks to some
wise advice from SDSU wrestling coach Warren Williamson, who
coached Aelred's brother Frank. Williamson suggested that Aelred
and Sander use their electronics know-how to create a scoreboard
for wrestling. At the time wrestling teams had to use basketball
displays that couldn't properly show wrestling information and
were usually set too high and too far from the mat. In 1971
Daktronics created a three-sided wrestling scoreboard that stood
matside; company reps toted it to collegiate meets around the
country, and their order book began filling up.
Daktronics soon expanded to other sports, largely serving high
schools and colleges. Milestones in the following years included
providing scoring displays for the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake
Placid and supplying the PGA Tour with mobile scoreboards,
beginning in '87. Business began to really boom in '92, when the
opening of Baltimore's Camden Yards (a Daktronics customer)
launched a wave of stadium construction that the company has
ridden to its current success. Daktronics created all or part of
the displays in 24 of 30 major league ballparks, 22 of 31 NFL
stadiums, 19 of 28 NBA facilities and 19 of 30 NHL arenas. It
installed two new video boards for this year's Kentucky Derby,
and the Athens Games will be its eighth Olympics.
A visit to Daktronics's 368,000-square-foot complex reveals the
scope of its business. In the works: displays for the University
of Wisconsin's Kohl Center and a water park in Baton Rouge,
highway traffic signs and a 65-foot-high video billboard destined
for Times Square. The company also designs stock tickers, video
displays for casinos and mass-transit systems, and commercial
Kurtenbach says the breadth of Daktronics's customer base
protects it as pro stadium construction subsides. In addition,
teams are continually upgrading their video displays. Daktronics
CEO Jim Morgan, who joined the company in 1969 while a grad
student at SDSU, says nothing persuades a college to buy a new
scoreboard like an archrival's unveiling a snazzy new model:
"With today's kids, what they see is what they buy. Put a big
video shot of a recruit up on a scoreboard, and it's going to
make an impact."
Even teams with relatively new stadiums eventually upgrade their
displays for the sake of short-attention-span fans. The enormous
new Jacobs Field scoreboard replaced one that Daktronics
installed when the stadium opened in 1994. "Ballparks compete
with the living room," says Kurtenbach, "so they need bigger
displays with more data."
It's a curious world, indeed, when live sporting events try to
re-create the experience of television. It can make a fan
nostalgic for the days when the main "visual inputs" at the
ballpark were the game itself and the hand-turned scoreboard
numbers. Of course anyone hankering for a return to the simple
life could move to a town that has no big-time sports
teams--like, say, Brookings, South Dakota.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: COURTESY OF DAKTRONICS (2) BIG SCORE Daktronics's recent jobs include the monster board at Jacobs Field and the arena display for the Phoenix Coyotes.
Really Big Deals
These are Daktronics's largest orders at three levels of sports
PRO: Cleveland Browns $13 million
Price influenced by timing--cost of technology employed in this
1999 project, including two giant screens, has since dropped.
COLLEGE: Wisconsin $5 million
New displays for the Badgers' football and basketball venues
include an electronic signboard that rings the entirety of the
HIGH SCHOOL: Mesquite (Texas) school district $1.5 million
Daktronics helped the district defray the cost of displays at two
football stadiums by assisting in the selling of scoreboard