Teams slow to embrace LED lighting in sports venues

The San Francisco 49ers are putting the finishing touches on a $1.3 billion stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., meant to be one of the most environmentally friendly in the world.

Solar panels on the roof will create enough energy over 365 days that the power used during the 49ers’ 10 annual home games will be net neutral to the power grid, according to Al Guido, the team’s chief operating officer. Toilets and sinks are more efficient than state standards, and the sprinkler system will use recycled water.

But when the 49ers chose to install overhead lights to illuminate the field at Levi’s Stadium, they opted against the most energy efficient option. The team initially planned to install high-impact LED lights, but later decided to join the other 31 National Football League teams in opting for more traditional metal halide lights or incandescent bulbs.

To date, just one major North American sports team — the Montreal Canadiens of the National Hockey League — has installed LED overhead lights in its stadium or arena, according to the New York Times.

That could soon change, said Mike Lorenz, president of Ephesus Lighting, a Syracuse, N.Y., company that specializes in LED technology. He said the technology has advanced to the point where its quality has surpassed traditional stadium lighting.

He’s not alone in that belief. “Now, the technology is so much better, it’s so different,” said Robert Otani, a structural engineer and principal at Thornton Tomasetti, a New York structural engineering firm.

But sports teams remain unconvinced.

Barriers to acceptance

For the 49ers, concerns from broadcasters about how LED lights might affect the way colors appeared on television led the team to reverse course, according to the San Jose Mercury News. “Nobody wants to see a pink-shirted linebacker, no matter how many greenhouse gases his team is offsetting,” the newspaper wrote.

Those concerns are misguided, Mr. Lorenz said. He sat in the production truck during a CBS Sports Network broadcast of a basketball game at the University of Rhode Island’s Ryan Center where Ephesus had installed LED arena lights.

The reviews were positive, he said, noting some producers were impressed with the uniformity of the light coverage for LED.

But in many ways, Mr. Lorenz said, LED lighting has been its own enemy. LEDs were introduced to the commercial market in the late 1960s, and high-impact LEDs were first available about 15 years ago. Early versions fell far short of consumer expectations for suitable lighting, and the stigma continues to persist. 

“Quite honestly, the advancement of LED capability has occurred faster than people may have thought,” he said. “Old technology was poorly designed, so it took the mantle of ‘That’s LED, and LED doesn’t have that capability for high-definition broadcasting.’“

LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are semiconductors that generate light when an electrical current passes through. Metal halide lights and incandescent bulbs require heat to generate light and thus use more energy to operate. LEDs often operate with 33 percent to 50 percent less wattage. 

Sports teams have long used LED lighting in their stadiums, turning to it in the past decade for ribbon boards and video boards to display advertising, show scores and play videos.

Those installations have quick returns on investment. Sponsorship dollars almost instantaneously offset capital costs because sponsors are willing to pay more for that kind of visual presentation.

The return on investment for high-impact stadium lighting is not so immediate. LED fixtures cost nearly four times as much as traditional lights, while the energy savings are not quite as dramatic.

New construction projects make it more feasible. Teams can save money almost immediately, Mr. Lorenz said, because fewer LED fixtures are needed.

By comparison, retrofits can often take years to show cost savings. “It’s much more expensive to retrofit a building than to build in that capability from the start,” Mr. Otani said.

Mr. Lorenz said it costs between $300,000 and $400,000 to retrofit a professional sports arena and install LED lights. In those venues, it takes two or three years to recoup the costs with energy savings. Outdoor stadiums cost close to $1 million, and it can take five or six years for energy savings to make the investment worthwhile. 

Most teams — and the municipal organizations that operate many arenas — have not been able to justify the upfront costs.

Change is coming

But some high-profile teams are ready to make the conversion, and that could motivate stadium operators to reevaluate LED lighting. 

The Dallas Cowboys installed LED lights in a couple different fixtures at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, “just to see what they looked like,” spokesman Brett Daniels said. The team had two LED manufacturers install the lights after the conclusion of the most recent season, and the Cowboys hope to use that information when it comes time to replace current light fixtures. 

"We’re just exploring the technology,“ Mr. Daniels said. 

Mr. Lorenz said Ephesus LED lights have been installed at about 15 venues, most recently in the basketball arena at the University of Massachusetts.

His firm is working with one NFL team, though he declined to disclose its name, on a proposal to install high-impact LED lights. Ephesus also is working with an unnamed “major university” on an installation project that should be completed by September, he said.

“There are a lot of people sticking to the metal halide fixture because they believe the technology’s not there,” Mr. Lorenz said. “Some of the major companies that have been in that market maintain that myth.”

He anticipates that once one NFL team successfully installs LED lights, many other teams will follow.

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 and Twitter @msanserino.

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