I do not watch tele­vised sports, as the expe­ri­ence usu­al­ly leaves me feel­ing more exhaust­ed than elat­ed. On New Year’s Day, I remem­bered why.

My hus­band kept call­ing me into the liv­ing room to watch replays of the Citrus Bowl foot­ball game between Iowa and U.K., so I final­ly just closed my book to watch the sec­ond half.

Now, I have a basic under­stand­ing of the rules of the game. But I strug­gled to fol­low the plays, as only a few square inch­es of our siz­able screen actu­al­ly showed the game. The rest was pix­e­lat­ed vomit.

The top three inch­es was a mov­ing scroll list­ing coun­ties cur­rent­ly under severe weath­er threat. The top left cor­ner had a map of the state, those coun­ties blink­ing alarm­ing­ly. The bot­tom five inch­es was a con­fused mess; I lit­er­al­ly can­not tell you with any accu­ra­cy exact­ly what I was look­ing at. One sec­ond it would show the score of the U.K. game, but then would switch to dis­play oth­er foot­ball scores of games in progress. There were still oth­er box­es depict­ing scores for hock­ey and soc­cer. Finally, there were ubiq­ui­tous logos and chan­nel emblems flash­ing hith­er and yon.

Kroger Field, Lexington, KY (Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash)
Kroger Field, Lexington, KY dur­ing a U.K. foot­ball game. Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

It wasn’t long before I felt nau­seous. I real­ize this is stan­dard prac­tice (and since tor­na­does were once again rolling through the area, I total­ly under­stand the top third of the screen). But is it a good idea?

The con­cept of a score box was intro­duced by ABC (which is owned by ESPN) for the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Soccer has a run­ning clock and, except for half­time, doesn’t take breaks. How could ABC afford to broad­cast the game with­out com­mer­cial breaks? Their answer was the score box, a way to run the game with­out inter­rup­tions while show­ing the score and ever-chang­ing pop-up adver­tis­ing for their spon­sors. Later that year, Fox rebrand­ed it the Fox Box for the 1994 NFL sea­son. Soon, it was ubiq­ui­tous on every chan­nel and in every major sport­ing game, adding sounds to alert the view­er when a pop-up changes. And they change a lot.

A Senior Director of Motion Graphics at ESPN is paid almost $200,000 a year to inno­vate new ways to direct our focus. We might think we are watch­ing a U.K. foot­ball game on ABC, but some­one made sure we also knew that the Notre Dame/Oklahoma State game was about to start, AT&T was offer­ing a lim­it­ed time deal on unlim­it­ed data, and a new episode of The Goldbergs would be broad­cast Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. EST. 

My hus­band watch­es a lot of sports and hates a score box. He often tapes long strips of white paper on the screen because he is tap­ing one game while he watch­es anoth­er. He says he doesn’t want to know if the Miami Dolphins won while watch­ing the Tennessee Titans. I believe this may also be an uncon­scious move to save his brain.

Maybe a tiny sci­ence les­son will help. Our eye­ball is lit­er­al­ly a part of our brain. The optic nerve and reti­na are brain tis­sue that extends out­side the encased brain. So when you look into someone’s eyes? You are actu­al­ly see­ing into their brain.

The brain itself is made up of neu­rons, some 86 bil­lion of them. A sin­gle neu­ron fires up to fifty times per sec­ond and receives around five thou­sand con­nec­tions from oth­er neu­rons. In the time it takes you to read this sen­tence, bil­lions of neu­rons will have fired inside your head. So every­thing we look at con­scious­ly (like the foot­ball game) and uncon­scious­ly (like the score box and oth­er pop-ups) require tril­lions of brain cells to work. At that rate, it isn’t long before our brain gets overwhelmed.

Luckily, for tele­vised sports, there’s a work-around for most fans. If we are emo­tion­al­ly invest­ed in the out­come of the game, our body will release enough endor­phins and epi­neph­rine to help our brain run a lit­tle longer. But it’s still a finite resource. We can­not escape the fact that watch­ing any screen with too many pop-ups exhausts our ner­vous sys­tem, whether we are aware of it or not. 

It’s not just tele­vised sports of course. Pull up Facebook.com on a lap­top and we see not just our friend’s posts but also short­cuts, groups, birth­days, con­tacts, videos, and spon­sored ads. Try to read an arti­cle from The New York Times with­out a sub­scrip­tion and it’s more of the same. Pop-up box­es – with mov­ing graph­ics and sound – pull our atten­tion away time and again from what we’re read­ing. It depletes our atten­tion and leaves us unable to con­cen­trate or think well lat­er on. So watch­ing three NFL games back to back on Sunday means Monday is going to be a very unpro­duc­tive workday.

But what to do? Luckily, you can watch sports until your eye­balls fall out all week­end and still be focused and pro­duc­tive the next day. Check back here next week for the how!

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.