LED sports lighting: installation considerations for schools and commercial sports centers

led sports lighting

Most people don’t notice a sports field’s lighting system until they go watch a game that has an incredible, perfect, state of the art system… and then every stadium they go to after that simply can’t measure up. You don’t want to spend your time and money “keeping up with the Joneses.” You want to be setting the standard and getting the most for your money. In this article we answer some of the most common questions and take a look at some of the important considerations when installing LED sports lighting systems. 

If you are planning to install or retrofit LED sports lights at your sports facility, try our LED sports lighting cost calculator to get a customized cost estimate for your lighting project. 


Table of Contents

Why you should consider upgrading to LED sports lighting

Sports facilities have to be open throughout the evening, even in winter, even outdoors. An outdoor playing field that is dependent on sunlight will not bring much value to a sports center. Basic but true, and it’s why floodlights are only one step behind the playing field itself on the “must do” list for building or renovating a sports facility.

LED sports lighting systems are gaining popularity all the time, thanks to their superior efficiency, performance, and quality, and are becoming the first choice for both outdoor and indoor sports facilities. Doing the short- and long-term budgeting will guide the planners in deciding whether they should go for a conventional or LED-based system. The benefits of energy savings, extended operating hours for the facility (i.e. keeping play going after sundown) and maintenance costs all reveal themselves down the road, even as the initial outlay is higher for LED’s. LED sports lights are now used for almost all outdoor and indoor sports. Whether on a football, baseball, field hockey, tennis or soccer field or as ball-proof lighting in a gymnasium, LED lights are energy efficient and offer advantages in terms of brightness, control and savings compared to a conventional floodlight system.

LED sports lighting is the future

While there are still pros and cons to debate, the future belongs to LED technology for sports fields. The technology has advanced to where the price has dropped considerably, allowing organizations to break even on their investment in a relatively short amount of time.  

Some critics argue that LED’s are a luxury for recreational sports facilities, that they do not need such a premium product given the level of competitiveness of their teams and athletes. This not only overlooks the economic considerations, but also the growth in recreational sports and fitness. More participants will lead to clubs keeping the lights on longer. More participants will also increase competition within the sports club industry. Yesterday’s luxury amenity is today’s expectation among current and prospective members.

On top of their superior quality, the cost savings that accrue to sports centers by using LEDs instead of halogen lamps give the newer technology a major advantage. Each club has to weigh the short-term costs and long-term savings for themselves, and decide what timeframe will drive their decision making. Facility managers and planners should seek out a range of opinions and get as many price estimates as possible, but they will find that most experts in the field exclusively recommend LEDs. From there, it’s just a matter of designing the right system for the project.

Still have some doubts?

Read about the costs related to LED sports lighting retrofit projects. 

led sports lighting design

LED Sports Lighting Design Considerations

Field dimensions

The most basic questions in lighting design are: what are we lighting, and how big is it? You don’t need us to tell you that the larger the field, the more light you’ll need. 

Knowing the dimensions of the playing field itself is not enough for designing a lighting system. Players, coaches and staff will use the area around the field; and some sports federations require a minimum amount of boundary area that has to be of the same surface and lighting as what’s inside the lines. This is a simple matter of safety: players can’t step into darkness every time they chase a ball out of bounds.

LED sports lighting fixtures

The size of the field and the neccessary luminance level will influence how many lighting fixtures you need. This question is closely related to how many light poles you’ll need, as well. Then there’s the intersection of those two factors: how many fixtures per pole?

As the planning process gets increasingly detailed (and it will), the system designers will consider the angle at which each fixture is aligned; how much light escapes from the fixture, and add-ons you can install to minimize scattered light; The one thing you can take as a solid going-in position is that LED lights offer so many advantages over conventional halide lamps that they are almost unanimously used across the sports industry.

Knowing that, we can start going into the details. 

Floodlight poles

The number of lighting poles depends in part on the size of the field and how brightly it needs to be lit. Aside from how many, though, there are also questions of how tall, how sturdy and precisely where around the field they will go. 

The strength of each light and the amount of light scatter from the fixtures will impact the height of the pole. Taller poles are heavier, which means the height of the pole will affect the concrete foundation. Taller poles are also more susceptible to high winds and other extreme weather, which will also play into the sturdiness of the foundations and how the individual fixtures are attached to the poles.

The placement of the poles may also require you to expand your electrical infrastructure. If your current lighting system is all on one side of the field but your upgrades place new poles on the far side of the field, you may need to lay down the conduits and switching boxes to extend your power to those more distant poles. 

Lighting quality and uniformity

Two of the most important and specific considerations in sports lighting are uniformity and line of sight. We’re not lighting a stage, someplace where all the eyes are looking. At a sports venue, yes, if there are fans, they will all be looking at the field. But the players are looking in every direction at any given moment. If they lose sight of the ball looking into a dark spot on the field or looking up into the glare of a light, their performance will be compromised and their safety at risk. 

Lux levels are how bright the lights are at field level: what do the players see and experience. Light classes refer to uniformity and color saturation, often with reference to natural sunlight. 

The lux levels and lighting classes really come into play with more competitive levels of play. Middle schools, community sports fields and recreational or practice fields may not need to consider these factors as much. 

However, any field that falls under the jurisdiction of a governing body will probably have to be built (and lit) to the minimum requirements of the governing body. Those requirements will be based on player performance and safety, fan experience and video broadcast / streaming specs.

Standards and requirements

Sports fields have unique requirements that other large outdoor venues, including other mass-participation event spaces, don’t have. Even the smallest sports fields will often have more stringent requirements than a larger non-sports space.

Sports associations and governing bodies will often set the minimum standards of luminance and lighting classes for competitive fields under their jurisdiction. Depending on the sport and level, they may also set requirements for training fields.

The IES (Illuminating Engineering Society of North America) standards are considered the gold standard in the sports field lighting industry. IES standards provide guidance and recommendations for sports lighting construction professionals on lighting system design, output and overall best practises.

Sports facilities also need to consult municipal regulations and their insurance policy for any additional standards. Local governments will often impose requirements that focus on participant safety (especially for public schools) and community impact. More and more towns and cities are taking a hard line against light pollution. Those regulations may require you to use certain lamps and make fixture modifications to ensure that the light you generate doesn’t make its way into the sky or surrounding houses or businesses.

LED Sports lighting control systems and energy efficiency

Another advantage of LED lighting systems is their easy flexibility. Individual coaches or team managers can control the lighting system using an app or simple touchpad. This lets them turn on only the lights they need, therefore reducing electrical costs. If they only need to partially light half the field for a training session, then they’ll only turn on some of the lights at a percentage of full power. On game day, they can turn things all the way up.

The LED lights themselves are more energy effiicient than their halide predecessors. For a given light output, LEDs consume less electricity. These gains are magnified by the improved focus and reduced scatter of light from LED lamps. With halide lamps, a relatively small percentage of the light – light the facility is paying for! – makes its way to the field. With LED lamps and reflectors, nearly all the light that comes out of the bulb ends up on the field. A higher percentage of usable light reduces the overall amount of electricity, letting the savings from efficiency quickly outpace the higher costs at installation of LED systems.

led sports lighting requirements

How many lights or light fixtures do I need?

That’s often the first question facility managers and athletic directors ask. Unfortunately, answering it requires asking a handful of questions that should come first.

Walk out onto the field and ask yourself “If I were one of the players, how much light would I need right here, at this spot on the field, to play?” Sports field lighting directly affects player safety and performance. The luminance on the field must be adequate for them to see everything they need to see for their sport, whether that’s a 90 mph fastball coming at them from 60 feet away or a 45 yard pass arcing through the air towards the end zone. 

Once the coaches have their say (and they should have a say), someone from the media or marketing team will say “How will that look on camera?” If you’re lighting a training facility, that won’t be as much of an issue. But if this is a competitive stadium, broadcast requirements may exceed the “playing requirements” for light levels. 

From there, the engineers can map that luminance level across the entire field. Then they’ll ask “Where can we place the lighting fixtures?” That’s a function of how much run-out space you need to have around the field, sideline areas for the teams, spectator seating and maybe a track that will loop around a football or soccer field.

With that information in hand, the lighting designers can start to develop a menu of options for your lighting system. There may be a few systems that use a lower number of high-powered lamps, while others turn to a higher number of low-powered lamps.

So the unsatisfying answer to our question is: It depends… on a lot. Instead of an answer, we’d rather offer the piece of advice we started with: go out to the field and work backwards from there.

Is light pollution really something sports fields need to care about? Really?

You want your sports field or complex to be a local landmark. You don’t want airplane pilots joking that they use your facility as a navigation aid because they can see the lights from miles away.

First off, you’re paying for all that light. Whether the photon goes to the field, down the street or out into space, it’s coming out of your pocket. When you see the hazy glow of a stadium over the horizon, think of it as a fountain of wasted money. 

Second, scattered light is pretty annoying. Your neighbors won’t be too happy if they’re losing sleep because light from your fields is spilling into the bedroom. No can afford to jeopardize their relations with the local residential and business community. Reducing light spillage is an easy way to keep everyone happy.

Sport and Venue Specific Lighting Considerations

While it might be easy to assume that all sports played outdoors would require a similar lighting setup, this is actually not the case. For example, NFL football stadiums require 2,500 lux(a metric related to lumen), while college football requires 1,500, and high school football requires 500. Stadiums use LED floodlights, which can be arranged in a row, or situated throughout the venue as needed to accommodate the sport. Beam angle, light pole height are other considerations to take into account, especially if the event is being televised. 

Recommended lighting levels for soccer as similar to that of American football. However, extra attention should be paid to the corners of the field with regards to lighting. Corner kicks are prevalent in the sport, and often provide an offensive team with its best chance to score. As a result, lighting fixtures and beam angles need to take this into consideration. 

Baseball/softball fields have different characteristics than football, both as a sport, and on the field itself. Rather than the rectangular shape of a football field, the baseball playing surface is shaped like a diamond. Additionally, the baseball itself is much smaller than a football, and is thrown and hit at players at a much higher speed. As a result, the illumination of the field, and in particular, the infield, needs to be sufficient for faster reaction time by the players. The recommendation is that an average of 50 horizontal footcandles(another brightness metric used in the U.S) be shined on the infield, while 30 horizontal footcandles be shined on the outfield.

Read more about sport-specific lighting specifications in our complete guides: 

Best Choices For High Schools and Colleges

LED sports lights have a number of advantages, such as long lifespan, design flexibility, instant lighting, and dimming capability. They would serve as the ideal option for high school and college facilities at this point in time, having replaced HID lights as the stadium standard. 

High school and college stadiums typically use high-power LED floodlights. The wattage of these types of lamps varies quite a lot but generally falls between 300W-1000W. Dividing the number of lumens and the number of watts used to power one lumen can help provide a purchaser with the efficiency value of a lighting option i.e. the amount of visible light you get for a given amount of energy. The lumens per watt value has significantly increased in recent years thanks to great improvements achieved in LED technology. Stadium LED lamps generally speaking reach a range of 100 – 150 lumens per watt.

Estimating the strength of your lights is an interplay between how much space you need to light and where you are able to install the lighting fixtures. 

If you have a low-capacity grandstand close to the field, the light poles can also be close to the field and do not need to be particularly high. This keeps down the cost of the poles and the cost of the lights, because fewer lux are needed. 

However, if you have a 15,000-seat stadium with a grandstand on each side of the field and a track running between the field and the stadium, everything gets bigger: the area the light has to cover, the number of lux needed, the size and strength of the poles and the overall cost of the LED sports lighting system.

Scoping, Planning, installation, and maintenance

Much of the work that goes into determining the lighting requirements will have been completed when planning the field itself. The same considerations of sport, competitive level, and available space will shape what you need for the lighting system. 

Once you have that information in hand and know the necessary illumination level, lighting system engineers can start developing options for providing that amount of light. They will balance things like the strength of individual lamps with the number of lamps per pole and the number of poles on the field. That, in turn, will affect the height of the poles and the tuning of each fixture on each pole.

They will also consider the electricity usage, and how much electricity the facility is capable of supplying to each pole. This is where finances and engineering begin to overlap: how much electricity will each arrangement need, how much can the facility deliver to each pole and how much will the costs of each option vary upfront and over time?

The delivery of a sports field lighting system can take anywhere between 1 and 12 weeks to deliver. A new installation can take the full 12 weeks if cabling and earthwork need to be done before putting up the light poles and installing the LED luminaires. On the other hand, if you are only replacing a few lighting fixtures, your project can be finished inside one week. Therefore, it is worth estimating beforehand how much time each step in the project takes and setting a clear schedule for the project. Typically schools or sports clubs install or replace their lighting systems during the off-season in order to have everything up and running before the new season starts in the fall.

What are the major costs of installing a lighting system at a sports field?

This one is a bit more direct. Once again, let’s start at ground level. Literally, the ground. 

How much work will you need to do to prepare the ground to support the sports field lighting system? You may need a soil survey to ensure you have an adequate foundation for the light poles (and the weight of the poles will be part of all that stuff we talked about in Question #1). If not, you may have to excavate and install sufficient gravel and dirt for the foundations to sit upon.

Another potentially significant part of site preparation is the electricity infrastructure. You’ll need a way to get the juice to the lights. Depending on what is already in place, powering up a new lighting system may entail installing the conduits, junction boxes and the like.

Next are the light poles themselves. Modern light poles are either metal, concrete or a combination of the two. Wood poles should never enter the conversation. We bring them up only to ensure that if your contractor offers them, you can give them a firm “No.” The cost of the poles will vary based on the material and size (height, weight and diameter), with the size determined in part by weather conditions in your area. 

Then there are the lamps themselves. The price of the lamps depends on their output, the quality of the light they produce (yep, light comes in different qualities), the reflector systems (more on that in #3 and #5 below) and, of course, the number of lamps.

Finally, there’s the labor and installation costs. What we’ve talked about above are simply the equipment. Someone needs to do the actual work and get the lights up and on.

Get a customized cost breakdown for your lighting installation project by using our LED sports lighting cost calculator

What are the major operational costs post-installation?

The big one is the obvious one: electricity. Part of the process we sketched out in Question #1 will be calculating the power requirements. From there, you can project how many hours per day, week and month the lights will be on and, therefore, how much the electricity bill will be.

Part of keeping the electrical costs down is the reflector system. These ensure that all the light coming out of your lamps goes down to the field, instead of scattering. The reflector systems are part of the from-the-field-up planning process, but they are worth recalling when talking about the economic side of energy efficiency.

The other operational costs are maintenance and repair. Along with the power requirements, the lamps will have their rated lifespan, which will give you an idea of how often you need to replace them so you can estimate the annual costs of new lights and the necessary labor. The other component that will need occasional replacement are the fuses in the electrical systems.

Your planning process should factor in the normal weather conditions so everything you install can withstand what it’s expected to handle. 

However, severe or extreme weather can affect your lighting systems in sometimes subtle ways. Your lights may look like they came through those gale-force winds, but they may have blown off their alignment. Re-aligning the lamps is a somewhat common piece of unplanned maintenance.

Am I actually saving money by installing LED lights?

Yes. Hands down. Even though we’re talking about one cost after another here, yes, a new LED lighting system truly is an investment in a sports facility.

LED lights last longer than conventional halide lamps, reducing the replacement and maintenance costs. They are more energy efficient, both in the number of watts they consume per lumen and in their ability to focus the light towards the field of play. LED systems “lose” far less light than halide lamps. LED systems also satisfy much more easily and economically all the considerations of glare, light uniformity, suitability for broadcasts and quality.

Thank you for asking such an easy-to-answer question.

Grants and financing for LED sports lighting projects

Because the lighting system is such a key component of sports fields being safe, competitive and accessible, there are many grants and financing options specifically for the lights.

Several professional leagues offer grants for lighting system installations or upgrades via their foundations, and municipal or community backers frequently rally around new lighting systems because their benefits are so clear.

LED sports lighting for outdoor and indoor facilities

Every sports facility, indoor or outdoor, needs lighting. You can only count on the sun for so much, and the sun sets right as most sports venues start to get busy. 

Designing a lighting system that satisfies the players and coaches, facility managers and financiers, fans and neighbors is a major task, but there’s no way around it. That’s why we’re here to make it easier!

LED Sports lighting companies

By this point, you probably have a good appreciation for how detailed the planning and installation process is for sports field lightings. Or, maybe you simply noticed the price range we mentioned earlier ($120,000 – $420,000) and realized that anything that costs that much must be important and requires expert help.

Our sports lighting calculator offers a useful starting point to see where in that price range your project may fall. And along with your quote, we’ll suggest proven professionals in the sports lighting industry – designers, manufacturers and project managers – who have experience working through all these details and creating the ideal lighting system for any sport, level and budget.

Be sure to go through our checklist for choosing the right sports lighting company for your lighting project before making any big decisions!