A tiff erupts over what should replace Oriole Park's aging JumboTron

Dispute clouds the stadium's big picture

December 05, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN REPORTER

Like many people this holiday season, the Orioles want a bigger, clearer television screen.

Their partners at the Maryland Stadium Authority agree that they need one, but the sides are struggling to agree on the specifications for the screen and on how the bill for this sparkling new feature of Oriole Park at Camden Yards should be divided.

The stadium authority voted last week to purchase a $1.5 million Mitsubishi DiamondVision screen that would replace the existing Sony JumboTron.

However, the Orioles say they didn't approve the video screen, as is required in the team's lease with the stadium authority. In a letter to the authority last week, attorneys for the club said the screen should be part of a yet-to-be-completed "audio-video plan" for the stadium and any bid should incorporate an upgrade to a high-definition picture.

"The board they've selected is not only inadequate in size but in capabilities," said Alan M. Rifkin, an attorney representing the Orioles. "Now, they want to rush to judgment and place an order for an inadequate video board. This needs to be done right, it needs to be done completely and it needs to be adequate not just for the standards of today but of the next decade."

The authority countered that Orioles officials had received copies of the bid documents for the video screen and that three team officials had sat on a committee that unanimously selected the winner. The letter from Rifkin and Orioles general counsel Russell Smouse came out of left field, they said.

"The Orioles were part of the process from Day One, and we followed the recommendations of a consultant that we all agreed on," authority Chairman Robert L. McKinney said. "Unfortunately, this letter came very, very late in the process. ... Things changed rapidly. We were taken by surprise."

McKinney said the authority and the Orioles are still in discussions and the Mitsubishi screen could be installed in time for the team's home opener if a resolution is reached by the end of the week.

But the Orioles hope to persuade the authority to back away from that buy and wait for an expert study on the audio and visual needs at Camden Yards. That study wouldn't take long, Rifkin said.

"If we take the time to do it right, it will pay dividends in the long term," he said.

He added that if the authority persists in its effort to buy the Mitsubishi screen, the Orioles might go to arbitration to prevent it. He said the technology would be outdated from the day of installation and would not meet the lease's promise that the ballpark's facilities remain in the top 25 percent of all those in Major League Baseball.

The sides also disagree over how the state should pay for potential enhancements to the screen. The Orioles say the authority should buy it outright, no matter what improvements are included. The authority says it will cover the cost of replacing the board but any size enhancements should be covered by a fund set aside for ballpark improvements.

Seven years of talks

The state earmarked $10 million for improvements at Camden Yards in 2001 after a panel of arbitrators ruled the Orioles' lease was less favorable than the Ravens' deal with the state and thus in violation of a "parity" clause.

Discussions over a replacement screen have lasted for almost seven years, and team and authority officials agree the JumboTron is on its last legs.

The $2.6 million video screen was cutting-edge when it was installed for the opening of Oriole Park in 1992. But the 23-by-31-foot board is considered out of date compared with the SmartVision screen at M&T Bank Stadium and other larger, sharper screens that have gone into ballparks around the country in recent years.

Sony no longer makes replacement parts for the current screen, and authority officials said in one letter to the team that they couldn't guarantee the JumboTron would function throughout the 2007 season. They said they had to approve a bid for the new screen last week or risk not having the screen ready for the club's home opener in April.

New technology

The old screen uses traditional television technology. Most newer boards use light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, similar to the ones that light up alarm clocks and wristwatches. Boards based on LED technology are cheaper, larger and offer superior picture quality.

The University of Texas, for example, recently debuted a 7,370-square-foot Daktronics screen dubbed "Godzillatron." That's 10 times the size of the JumboTron at Camden Yards, with much higher resolution to boot.

LED screens also have a life span of 100,000 hours, which works out up to 411 seasons of three-hour home games.

The Orioles would like to upgrade the ballpark's entire scoreboard, not just the video screen. And Rifkin said they might be willing to assume financial responsibility for keeping up the old JumboTron during the search for an ideal replacement.

"What we don't want to do is shove a new board into the old space just because we can," he said. "That would be a waste of taxpayer money."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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