Thirty NBA seasons ago, the San Antonio Spurs claimed a little-known slice of sports history. Five months before they won the NBA draft lottery and the rights to select David Robinson, the Spurs introduced a groundbreaking scoreboard at the old Hemisfair Arena.

On Dec. 27, 1986, the Spurs unveiled the JumboTron, a 30-foot wide, 20-foot high, four-color, multimillion-dollar rectangle of computerized flash and sizzle.

“This is the only scoreboard of it’s [sic] kind, manufactured by Sony, that will service an athletic facility in the United States,” trumpeted a Spurs news release back then. “[The] only other unit of this kind is at the Crystal Cathedral in California.”

The original JumbTron provided fans with the score, individual player statistics and instant replay in full color on four screens.

“It’s big, it’s pretty, it can be seen from all angles and it’s going to be active Saturday for the Spurs-Denver game,” the release said.

The scoreboard created more than a bit of history. The JumboTron spawned an international sports trend (every professional team had to have one), launched a competition to build the biggest scoreboard, and changed the game experience for fans.

“The JumboTron was the genesis for the in-game entertainment that you see today,” said Lawrence Payne, the Spurs Sports and Entertainment’s executive vice president. “If you’re going to have a basketball team, you’d better have a court and a big scoreboard. It’s become part of the whole experience.”

The original JumboTron at the HemisFair Arena.
The original JumboTron at the HemisFair Arena. Credit: Courtesy / Spurs Sports and Entertainment

The JumboTron made the Kiss Cam and Air Guitar Cam staples of home games. The giant scoreboard brought fans in the upper reaches of the arena closeups of the Coyote mascot. The screen inspired in-game contests, which led to sponsorships and new streams of revenue for the team. It delivered video clips and funny crowd shots of unsuspecting fans.

“People love to see themselves on the JumboTron,” said Clinton Rathmell, director of audio-visual engineering for SS&E.

Known in-house as “HD 12,” the current JumboTron was installed at the AT&T Center in 2015. At 32 feet by 35 feet, it dwarfs the original. The scoreboard has eight full video screens, an upper ring for statistics, sponsorships, and animations and corner wedge screens – all in high definition. Aside from size and increased video capabilities, one additional feature separates the original from the newest version.

“Clarity,” Rathmell said. “The original wasn’t very clear. It didn’t have good resolution. Lots of details were missed. This one is high resolution.”

New JumboTrons are popping up across the sports landscape and getting bigger. According to Electro Mech, a scoreboard company in Georgia, the Jacksonville Jaguars own the largest: 360 feet wide and 60 feet high. The JumboTron at Texas Motor Speedway ranks second (218 feet by 94.6 feet) and the scoreboard at NRG Stadium in Houston is third (277.17 feet by 53.49 feet).

And the Dallas Cowboys’ scoreboard? Recognized by Guinness World Records in 2009 as the largest, the JumboTron at AT&T Stadium today ranks No. 3 in Texas with each of the two displays measuring 160 feet by 72 feet.

The first version of the JumboTron appeared in 1980. Built by Mitsubishi Electric, the screen was called Diamond Vision and debuted at the Major League Baseball All-Star game. Six years later, then-Spurs owner Angelo Drossos wanted a giant screen to enhance the game experience for fans.

The JumboTron looms large over the arena at the AT&T Center.
The JumboTron looms large over the arena at the AT&T Center. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Angelo was very forward-thinking, and he decided he wanted a video board,” Payne said. “He was a promoter at heart. He saw it as, ‘Okay, we’re going to be the first. We’re going to be unique,’ and it really was.”

A representative from Sony, which built the first JumboTron for the Crystal Cathedral in 1985, came to San Antonio. Drossos negotiated a deal.

Neither Payne nor Rathmell remembers the price of that first JumboTron. But the Spurs news release described it as a “multi-million dollar” purchase.

Once the Spurs got their JumboTron, it was like a complicated new toy. They had to figure out how to use it. When they did, the scoreboard became the envy of the NBA and sports leagues across North America. Teams came to check it out.

Years after its debut, the Spurs sold the original shell to the Toronto Raptors “for the princely sum of $25,000,” Payne said. “It was either that or take it apart and throw it in the garbage.”

The modern JumboTron is everywhere: College football stadiums. Major-league ballparks. NBA arenas. NFL stadiums. Racetracks. But 30 NBA seasons ago, it was introduced to the sporting world in San Antonio.

In the closing days of December 1986, the Spurs were struggling at 7-22 and heading for 54 losses. No one knew then they would go on to win the NBA draft lottery and select David Robinson with the top pick. No one knew what the JumboTron would become, but it was the flashiest thing the franchise had going.

“We didn’t know what it was going to lead to,” Rathmell said. “But it’s exciting to know I was part of the very first one.”

Ken Rodriguez

Ken Rodriguez is a San Antonio native and award-winning journalist.