High-tech system biggest in sports, aims to be the best State-of-the art scoreboard centerpiece of club's effort to capture game experience

August 30, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.

John and Joan Keenan of Owings Mills were sitting in the lower bowl of the end zone at Ravens stadium. Their eyes moved from the field to the big screen and back to the field -- and back to the screen.

"If you can't figure out what's going on from this distance, you can look at the board," said Joan, 63. "I don't think there is a seat in this stadium that you can't see from."

As for the sound, well, John and Joan had differing views.

"They could turn it down a little," said Joan, a bookkeeper. "What do you think, John?"

"Perfect," said John, 70, a retired Baltimore City fireman, yelling over the stadium sound system. "You can hear every word."

Joan Keenan smiled.

"You have to remember," she said loudly. "He's got a 60 percent hearing loss in one ear." A few days later, up in the audio-visual control booth, John Modell, the executive producer of Raven Image, heard that story and grimaced.

"We're adjusting all the time," said Modell, a son of team owner Art Modell. "That exhibition game was the first time we've had the whole stadium filled. Having people in the seats, the acoustics changed a lot. We're trying to hone in."

The "we" in this is John Modell, his producer, Marcia Kapustin -- who worked with a similar system on a U2 concert tour and is one of the few people in the world who has experience with the fully-digital video system -- and about 15 others. That crew put in two months of 16-hour days -- working in a 46-foot by 26-foot glass-enclosed room that overlooks the field from just below the mezzanine level -- to get ready for the operations debut.

And as each game approaches, the crew has continued to tweak the system. By last Monday, for example, it was ready to show replays from the Ravens' previous outing, along with some information about the action on the field.

"I don't remember seeing too many replys at the last game," said David Barber, 35, of Riva, Md. "I'd definitely like to see more, but one thing you have to take into account is that the people running it are probably new at it."

Essentially, that's the case.

"We see it as our own training camp," Modell said. "Just like the players are memorizing playbooks and practicing new things, we're doing that here as well."

The crew is experimenting with statistics and replay packages that might flash on right after a key play. For a crucial reception, the screen might show a player's total receiving yards for the night or the season. Or a sack might be followed with a player's tackle total.

In any case, fans welcomed more quick game action.

"It's really high-tech," said Greg Wisniewski, 50, of Perry Hall. "I've seen a lot of replays that I think bring a considerable &L amount of pleasure to the game."

Modell predicts fans can expect to see more displays each week, including real-time highlights from around the NFL.

The technicians have a big challenge because the SmartVision system is the first of its kind, featuring two light-emitting diode (LED) scoreboards that each measure 96 feet by 24 feet.

About three stories high, they form the largest display board at any sports venue in the world. And there is the sound system, composed of more than 1,800 speakers, virtually one for every section in the building.

Separately, the screens and the sound system provide different challenges.

The sound system is different from most large sound systems in that individual speakers are focused on a small area rather than relying on a traditional columned bank of speakers designed to disperse sound over a large area. Already Modell and his people have pinpointed some problems.

In the upper decks, some sound wafts off into the open air. In the luxury suites, the balconies act as a kind of pocket that catches the sound, due to overhangs and a glass wall, and rattles it around relentlessly. In the lower seating areas, the volume varies, depending on where a fan is sitting in relation to the speakers.

"You can't hear the person next to you," said Dr. Matthew Celozzi II, 42, of Baltimore, who was sitting with his 80-year-old father in front of a speaker.

"I think it's wonderful," said Regina Whitaker, 40, a food inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture from Jessup, who was behind a speaker. "It's not too loud for me."

"I think it's just right, in terms of the sound level," said Virginia Donchez, 23, of Washington, whose seat was more or less under the speaker.

Modell said that after the first rehearsal during a Ravens intrasquad scrimmage, his office was flooded with complaints about the sound levels and worked long and hard to make corrections. Yet, he conceded, "I don't think we'll ever be able to please everybody.

"All by itself, a crowd this size produces noise of about 96 to 100 decibels. That's very loud, and to play the PA over that is very tricky," he said.

The goal of the sound system is to keep the energy up. That's why there is a variety of music, ranging from big band and salsa to rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues.

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