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.
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!