Jerry Sachs pushed the button that ushered in the modern era of sports spectatorship, the technology that would fuse the best aspects of attending a sporting event in person and having it neatly distilled through the filter of a television screen from the comforts of home.
It wasn’t really a button. It was a handle, like the one on a cartoon dynamite detonator used by Wile E. Coyote.
As part of the christening of the Capital Centre on Dec. 2, 1973, before an NBA game between the Capital Bullets and the Seattle SuperSonics, Sachs pushed the handle, and suspended 40 feet above him in Landover, Md., a four-sided messenger with 12-by-14-foot screens on all sides lit up in full color. Telscreen, as the scoreboard was known, took sports arenas out of the dark ages and sports fan into an age of in-game enlightenment.
“It came to be my responsibility to push that handle down, and Telscreen was to light up for the first time ever,” recalled the 79-year-old Sachs, who was the general manager of the Bullets (now Washington Wizards) and the president of the Capital Centre. “For a while I wasn’t sure it was such an honor, seconds seemed like minutes. But it did light up, and there were lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs.’ It was well-received from the very beginning.”
Telscreen was the first of the now ubiquitous big-screen color scoreboards that allow fans attending a game to see the same replays, close-ups, and updates of other games that fans watching on television can see. The sports revolution would be televised in the arenas and stadiums too, thanks to the incredible vision of late Bullets/Wizards and Washington Capitals owner Abe Pollin, who wanted to show fans replays in his new play palace.
The ability to watch instant replays or televised action in a sports edifice changed the way the games were consumed by fans and played by players. It was no longer a matter of memory vs. reality. The eyes in the sky didn’t lie. It was all competition verite. The stadia big screen altered the landscape of sports like integration, plane travel, television, and free agency.
“I’m so thrilled that we played a part in changing sports spectatorship,” said Sachs. “It has become such an integral part of following the games.”
Players and coaches routinely reference the video screens when complaining to officials or referees. The rote reaction of a player after being called for a foul or infraction is to stare up at the scoreboard to see if it really happened. A Dec. 2, 1973 article in the Washington Post presciently predicted that Telscreen would “be useful in second-guessing officials.”
In football, players racing for the end zone no longer pivot their heads to see who is chasing them. They look upward at the giant screens to determine whether they need to zig, zag or accelerate to reach the end zone.
No new stadium or an arena would be built now without a massive video screen. It would be like forgetting to include seats or bathrooms.
Built in 1914, Wrigley Field is believed to be the only major North American pro sports stadium or arena that lacks a Jumbotron. But the Chicago Cubs plan to add a video board to Wrigley this offseason as part of a $375 million renovation.
The old Boston Garden never had a big screen. If you wanted a Larry Bird no-look pass replayed, you had nowhere to look. You had to use your mind’s eye for the replay.
The screens are both microscope and telescope. They are like modern versions of Argus Panoptes, the sentinel from Greek mythology who had 100 eyes, sharing their panoptic eyesight with players, coaches, and fans.
They are also like a massive, high-definition Medusa, freezing in place whoever locks eyes with them. Some fans spend more time watching them than the action on the field, and some participants do too.
Last season, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin got caught watching a kickoff return on the big screen at M&T Bank Stadium and stepped into the path of Baltimore Ravens returner Jacoby Jones. Tomlin was fined $100,000 by the NFL for his must-see TV act.
Jumbo by any name
It’s common to refer to today’s screens as Jumbotrons. But the screens have adopted the name in much the same way that the brand Kleenex has become a synonym for any type of facial tissue. Everything is a Jumbotron, even though Sony doesn’t make them any more.
There was no Jumbotron technology in the early 1970s, when the Capital Centre, imploded to its demise in 2002, was being planned.
The Houston Astrodome, which opened in 1965, had a massive electronic scoreboard with 14,000 lightbulbs that could generate gaudy animations and had the ability to show some black and white, 16-millimeter images on a grid of bulbs. The Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., which opened in 1972, experimented with projection technology.
Sachs said that Pollin, who was moving the Bullets from Baltimore to the Beltway suburbs, wanted an edifice that was innovative. (The Capital Centre had a computerized ticketing system and Sky Suites, in addition to Telscreen.)
Pollin turned to his childhood friend Arnold Seigel, an engineer at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory (NOL), to bring the television experience to his arena. Seigel and Pollin had grown up together in Northwest Washington, D.C., and had been friends since age 11, when they had the same Hebrew teacher.
Seigel got a master’s degree in engineering from MIT in 1947 and a doctorate in physics from the University of Amsterdam in 1952. He spent 25 years at the NOL doing research in subjects like aerodynamics, hydrodynamics, and terminal dynamics. He pioneered closed-circuit television learning at the University of Maryland, where he taught and has a learning center named after him.
The 91-year-old Seigel is also the father of the modern sports video scoreboard.
“Mr. Pollin had the idea he wanted something to show replays or something going on in the arena,” said Seigel, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. “You couldn’t develop film fast enough to use movie cameras because even if it was a second after it happened, the voice wouldn’t correspond to the movement. It had to be something that would show instantaneously what was going on. I thought projectors would work.”
Seigel found a Swiss company (Gretag AG) that had developed a projector called Eidophor that allowed television images to be displayed on large screens. The technology had been used by the Pentagon.
Seigel said the four giant projectors staged in the arena to project images on Telscreen, built with lips above and below to shield the sensitive screens from the bright arena lights, cost $250,000 a piece. There were four in-arena cameras to capture the action.
Sachs said the whole arena was designed to showcase the Capital Centre’s replay-providing pièce de résistance and a television control room was built to feed content.
“We were really the forerunner of what is now everywhere,” said Seigel. “Athletic coliseums, arenas, playing fields all have these LED screens now.”
Following the trend
It wasn’t long before other sports leagues started employing similar systems.
In June of 1973, the Louisiana Superdome took delivery of its own Eidophor projection system. When the dome opened Aug. 3, 1975, it had a hexagonal set up with a gondola holding six screens suspended above the field.
Bob Jones was the director of television and radio for the Superdome from 1975 to 1978. He said the technology was so foreign the NFL asked to meet with the Saints at league headquarters in New York to determine how it would be used. At first, there was an NFL liaison in the control room with Jones to clear what plays could be shown.
While the Saints were dreadful in 1975, going 2-12, fans enjoyed the video boards.
“People loved it. We would sometimes run replays after every other play,” said Jones. “In all fairness to the NFL, the guy who worked with us was very understanding. I don’t remember that many replays that he rejected. The fans just loved the idea . . . This was before the day of hard drives and DVRs.”
Jones said players liked it too.
“I can remember players looking up, sure. It was almost like out of curiosity. Nobody had seen this before, this was this weird thing in a football stadium where you could watch a play on television,” said the 76-year-old Jones, a longtime television anchor and reporter who worked for CBS News.
One player liked the idea of hitting the screens — punter Ray Guy. In the 1976 Pro Bowl, Guy purposely punted a ball off the screens, some 90 feet above the field. That made both Guy, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, and the screens more famous.
To show how ahead of their time Capital Centre and Superdome were, when the New York Yankees opened the renovated Yankee Stadium in 1976, it had baseball’s first Telscreen, according to the club. It provided instant replays in a lot fewer than 50 shades of gray, nine to be exact.
It wouldn’t be until the 1980 All-Star Game at Dodger Stadium that baseball would get a full-color video replay board — Mitsubishi’s revolutionary Diamond Vision, a $3 million, large-scale television screen that didn’t rely on projectors.
Screens would get sharper, brighter and most notably larger as technology improved.
The mother of all video boards, the high-definition monolith that hangs over AT&T Stadium in Dallas is a Diamond Vision brand.
The four-sided board, which debuted with the stadium in 2009, has two sideline displays that are 160-feet wide and 72-feet tall. The end zone-visible displays are a mere 51 feet wide and 29 feet tall. The Cowboys say it would take 4,920 52-inch flat-panel TVs to equal the sideline displays.
Just last month at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, the Jaguars trumpeted the world’s largest HD video boards, spanning 362 feet across and standing 60 feet tall at either end of the stadium.
Each video board is longer than a football field and the height of a five- or six-story building, containing more than 21,700 square feet of screen.
Pollin, who died in 2009, could only dream of screens that size.
But thanks to his foresight it’s easy to see the big picture in sports.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.