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The evolution of sports lighting technology

baseball stadium LED lighting

Picture yourself at a baseball game. Snack in hand, you settle into your seat with a snack and wait for the first pitch. What time of day is it? 

Did you picture the sky darkening over the field just before sunset? Today, more than 80 percent of Major League Baseball (MLB) games are played at night, under the lights. And thanks to developments in sports lighting technology, we can take in a sports game after dark and still clearly see every play, every inning and every movement on the field. But holding sports contests without daylight was once nearly impossible.

Early lighting innovations and the first night games 

The ancient Olympic Games in Greece marked one of the first official sporting events. But the famous Olympic torch, which dates back to the original Games, did not bring light to the events. Instead, the ceremonial torch reflected the sun’s rays with a parabolic mirror. While the fire continued to burn throughout the Games, it provided only symbolic value. Once night fell, competitions ended for the day due to a lack of visibility.

Night games were not possible until much later, after Thomas Edison’s invention of the carbon-thread incandescent bulb in 1879. Sports enthusiasts were quick to jump on this new technology and the possibility of playing games under the lights.

But the first baseball game played at night was not a professional competition but a simple, friendly game between employees from two Boston department stores. Just one year after Edison patented his carbon-filament incandescent lamp, these innovators set up three wooden towers equipped with electric lights with the power of 90,000 candles. 

These early floodlights lacked the brightness of modern sports lighting, but as the sun set on the night of September 3, 1880, these players made history as the first to play baseball at night, under artificial lights. 

Although revolutionary at the time, these incandescent lamps did not emit much more light than the candles they sought to replace, and the teams were forced to play cautiously, with minimal visibility after the sun set. 

Professional baseball players wouldn’t compete at night for another 50 years. In the meantime, both amateur and professional baseball and football teams attempted to incorporate new lighting technology into their games.

The first night football game took place in 1892 but was stopped at the halfway point due to the low visibility provided by the incandescent lights.

In the early 1900s, Irving Langmuir improved Edison’s bulb by creating the tungsten-filament incandescent bulb. This lamp was brighter and longer lasting than the carbon-filament bulb, and it made night games feasible for professional teams. Shortly after these tungsten bulbs became available, professional sports teams began to implement artificial lighting in their stadiums.

On November 3, 1929, the NFL incorporated floodlights into its games. Six thousand fans packed into Rhode Island’s Kinsley Park Stadium, where the Chicago Cardinals faced off against the Providence Steam Rollers as the sun set. However, because the lights were not bright enough to fully illuminate a brown football, the ball was painted white; the next day, reporters commented that the game resembled two teams of men throwing around a large egg. 

By 1930, the Depression was already taking its toll on baseball teams, and many were nearing bankruptcy. Because games took place during the day, they were difficult or impossible for working Americans to attend. Desperate to save his team, J.L. Wilkerson, owner of the Kansas City Monarchs, decided to play games at night so that fans could come after work. Using six 50-foot tall floodlights with electric tungsten filament bulbs, Wilkerson made his idea a reality. Wilkerson managed to triple the attendance of Monarch games that season, though his efforts made him unpopular among the local police force. 

The major leagues followed suit soon afterward in 1935 with Cincinnati Reds manager Leland MacPhail’s $50,000 investment (equivalent to $850,000 today) in huge floodlights. Before, the Reds attracted a meager 3,000 spectators per game; the team’s first night game attracted 20,000 fans.

Less than a decade later, more than half of the MLB teams had installed lights in their stadiums.

Changing the game: stadium lighting powered by metal halide lamps and LEDs

The next innovation in lighting technology that impacted sports was Gilbert Reiling’s 1959 invention of the metal-halide lamp, which was released to the public in 1962. These lights offered a more pleasant, neutral color, and were more efficient than incandescent bulbs. In the years after their invention, sports lighting adopted metal-halide lamps into their floodlights to illuminate night games.

The same year as the release of metal-halide lamps, inventor Nick Holonyak., Jr., created the first LED lights using a red diode. However, white LED lights, invented by using blue diodes, did not come along until 1990.

The years that immediately followed these inventions saw widespread incorporation of floodlights and lighting fixtures in baseball, hockey, football, soccer, tennis and basketball stadiums, as well as racetracks. 

If early sports lighting professionals struggled to find lamps that were bright and long lasting, today’s experts aim to identify lights that will provide a better viewing experience for fans, align with live broadcast technology and conserve energy while lessening a stadium’s carbon footprint.

These developments have been playing out in sports lighting since the 1990 advent of the white LED: 

  • 1992 – Charlotte Motor Speedway became the first track to install lighting to host night races. Racetrack lighting fixtures must be diffuse and reduce glare on windshields to reduce driver risk.
  • 2008 – MLB partnered with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to go green and strive for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by reducing the league’s carbon footprint and working toward more sustainable sports arenas.
  • 2012 – The Oncenter War Memorial stadium contracted Eaton’s Ephesus Lighting, becoming the first professional hockey arena in the United States to install LED lights. LED lights made the stadium brighter, the ice whiter and the colors more vibrant. Forbes reported that the stadium saves 75-85 percent on overall energy costs, with an 87 percent reduction in energy consumption.
  • 2015 – The Seattle Mariners became the first MLB team to incorporate LED stadium lighting at Safeco Field.
  • 2015 – University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona made history as the first National Football League (NFL) venue to adopt LED lighting from Eaton’s Ephesus Lighting. This stadium also served as the host for Superbowl XLIX in 2015, the first football championship played under LED lights. 

These teams were among the first to make the switch to LED lights, but they will hardly be the last. Fans and athletes alike can appreciate the increased visibility that LEDs provide. Light from LEDs is brighter, more unfiltered and closer to natural sunlight than metal halide lights and other lighting fixtures. They reduce shadows and glare on the field while providing better, more natural color. Even sports fans watching from home benefit, as LED lights eliminate flicker in high definition broadcasts.

Sports lighting has come a long way since early electric lights, games stopped at halftime due to darkness and footballs painted white for visibility. Modern lighting innovations have helped changed the games we love by helping ensure we don’t miss a play as we cheer on our favorite teams into the night. 

Sources:

Today I Found Out

Time Inc.

Gizmodo

MLB

The History Center on Main Street

New York History Review

The Lighting reSource