Are LEDs ready for stadium floodlighting?

It used to be that if a sports stadium was equipped for outside broadcasts at all, it had one static main camera and a standalone floodlight tower in each of its four corners.

In recent years, sports broadcasting has evolved rapidly and its advances have had a double impact on the floodlighting requirements of elite sports clubs.

First, the development of slow motion replays – and now high-definition super-slow motion – has increased video’s speed from about 70 to 300 frames per second.

Broadcasters’ demands for natural, flicker-free lighting have thus become much harder to meet. The London Olympics of 2012 marked the point when flicker started to be specified at the design stage of stadium lighting projects.

Today there are two ways a stadium can go: conventional metal halide floodlights with electronic control gear, or LED.

Growing market
In August 2014 Southampton FC played (and lost, 1-0) the first English football match under LED lights: a pre-season friendly against Germany's Bayer Leverkusen. The new lighting at St Mary’s stadium was supplied by local company Vision Accendo. A few days later Chelsea became the next English club to introduce LED lighting, in time for a friendly against Spain’s Real Sociedad, with lights supplied by Philips. Although the energy savings from LED are relatively small, the new lights at Chelsea's Stamford Bridge stadium should be brighter than the ones they replace, last 10 years instead of just three, and are much more controllable. 

In the midwestern US state of Iowa, Musco is a sports lighting specialist of 40 years standing. It provided LED-based floodlights for about 60 sporting facilities last year – an impressive figure, but still only a small share of the market when you consider that Musco is expecting to work on a total of 2,000 projects (using LEDs as well as other technologies) this year.

Its LED projects include the NRG Stadium (home of the Houston Texans American football team), the training ground of the Denver Broncos and Twickenham Rugby Stadium in London.

According to Mike Simpson, technical and design director of Philips UK, ‘floodlighting is one of the last areas in which LED is taking over’. Before the 2014 football World Cup, the Dutch technology giant installed pitch lighting at five stadiums around Brazil. All five used the firm’s ArenaVision metal halide system, which is optimised for HDTV, 3D and for super-slow motion filming. However, those metal halides have now been ‘squeezed as much as they can be’.

Jeff Rogers, vice president of development sales at Musco, agrees: ‘Metal halide technology has reached its zenith, while the energy efficiency and quality of LED lighting is still rising – and will continue to do so as luminaire manufacturers spend more time working with it.’

It’s hard to find anyone who believes the LED takeover can be stopped and will not be total. Already, top venues and events are making the switch.

This year’s Super Bowl – America’s most watched TV broadcast and one of the most watched sports events in the world – took place under LED lights.  New York state-based Ephesus Lighting replaced 780 metal halide fittings with 312 LED units at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona which hosted the event in early February. ‘LED is superior in nearly every way measurable,’ says Mike Lorenz, Ephesus’ president. The stadium’s owner anticipates a 75 per cent drop in its lighting bills as a result, but there are other reasons for the upgrade.

Two years ago, the 2013 Super Bowl was interrupted by a power outage that plunged New Orleans’ Superdome into darkness for just over half an hour. Later that same year, an American League Championship Series baseball game at Comerica Park in Detroit was delayed almost 20 minutes. A couple of years earlier, another televised NFL American football game at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park was twice delayed by power failures – for more than 15 minutes each time.

Part of the problem in cases like this is that, if metal halide floodlights go off, you usually have to wait 10 minutes or more for them to cool down before you can switch them back on. No one wants to be blamed for tarnishing a city’s chance to shine and, in the event of a power failure, the ability of LEDs to turn on instantly could reduce serious finger-tapping delays to mere blips.

Light entertainment
One of LED’s other advantages was showcased at the Super Bowl’s half-time show, starring Katy Perry. As Ephesus’ Lorenz explains: ‘Its on/off capability allows LED to be programmed for entertaining light shows, helping organisers to save on the cost and energy required for a separate entertainment lighting system.’

Around the world, the days of using mechanical shutters to effect a creative blackout are coming to an end. This is the second impact of the broadcasting improvements we started with: sports fans are so happy with the quality of their living room experiences they no longer feel the need to watch quite so many matches live in stadiums. The owners of these facilities have therefore sought alternative sources of income, and a popular option has been music concerts.

Schréder supplied all the lighting for Belo Horizonte’s Mineirão Stadium, which was used in last year’s football World Cup and will be deployed again for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Its sports market segment manager, Cédric Collard, recognises there are ‘so many more reasons why it’s now better to be on the couch than at the ground’. Stadium owners must respond and Collard believes they should exploit the versatility of LED for lighting entertainment shows as much as for lighting sports.

Philips’ Simpson suggests that about a third of the budget of a regular concert is splashed on audience lighting. ‘Being able to plug LED floodlights into an entertainment system, and program them from there, seriously reduces those lighting costs.’

In the case of Chelsea Football Club, where Philips recently installed LED lights, it means the advantages go beyond just lighting for matches.

‘It allows the club to include orchestrated lighting displays in pre-match entertainment,’ says Simpson. ‘The only limit with LED is people’s imaginations. We’re not necessarily advocating this, but you could, for example, spotlight the individual players involved in a penalty shootout at the end of a game.'

As well as allowing event organisers to trip the light fantastic, LED has some more mundane – but no less useful – applications. It is fully dimmable so, for example, once a match (or concert) is finished lighting levels can be reduced to, say, 10 per cent to help the groundsmen (or cleaning staff) finish their jobs.

Then, of course, there are the universal betterments of LED. As well as using less energy themselves, LED fittings emit less heat than metal halide luminaires, which can mean reduced air-conditioning costs for indoor arenas. Solid-state lighting also has some very local environmental advantages: optic controls can be applied to greatly reduce spill and glare, and thus light pollution.

But, to achieve the sustainability double win of long-term financial and environmental savings, there is always the hurdle of high upfront costs. For the moment, this remains an insurmountable barrier for some stadium owners, particularly those who might run a smaller facility that does not need to be HD TV-ready.

Osram currently recommends LED fittings only for indoor applications, where distances are shorter and – crucially – usage times are greater. Its sports lighting application manager, Torsten Onasch, estimates annual operating times of 2,000-3,000 hours for multifunctional indoor arenas and energy savings of 30-50 per cent for those who switch to LED from a conventional system – as well as the usual maintenance benefits that surround LED’s longer lifespan.

Those maintenance benefits can be considerable because, as Schréder’s Collard points out, many stadiums carry out preventative relamping of all fittings – even the working ones – to minimise the risk of failure during a game.

Moving outdoors, Onasch says operating hours can be as low as 300 hours in big stadiums that do not usually host more than one professional match a week. Bearing in mind the efficiency of, say, a 2,000W metal halide lamp in a floodlight like Osram’s Siteco R3 Maxi (around 95 lm/W compared with an LED equivalent with 80-85 lm/W), the energy savings are not enough to justify the considerable upfront costs.

With such low usage, LED’s maintenance advantage is lost too. ‘A 2000W lamp would only need to be changed required after seven to 10 years. In that time every luminaire has to be cleaned – LED and conventional fixtures alike.’

So the LED takeover might not yet be all-encompassing, but it is imminent. The specifications we mentioned are from a current Osram project: the stadium in Baku, Azerbaijan that will host the inaugural European Games in June this year and must meet Olympic standards, including no flicker. ‘But sooner or later, LED will prevail for pitch lighting,’ Onasch confirms.

Even a year ago LED technology was not ready for large stadiums, says Lorenz, but Ephesus has recently contacted ‘nearly every’ new sports facility that is under construction or planning to break ground, and says ‘all of them are seriously considering LED’.

Simpson recognises that LED pitch lighting is only in its first generation. ‘The second generation is in the pipeline and it will deliver better quality with fewer floodlights.’ There will also be new-build stadium projects – not just refurbishments – which will bring opportunities to integrate LEDs into the architecture. ‘You might see bands of lights instead of clusters,’ says Simpson. ‘Designing for older stands is hard, but the complete flexibility of LED is exciting for architects.’

When that second generation arrives – and while the pace of change remains fast – there will be just one question for owners of world-class stadiums: should they switch to LED now and congratulate themselves for being among the first, or wait just a little bit longer so that they are future-proofed for years to come?