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March Madness: The Great Time Suck


How much productivity is really lost?


March Madness has returned and the good folks at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based consulting firm, fret that this year's college basketball tournament will cost U.S. employers as much as $1.7 billion in wasted time at work.

"For public companies whose performance is judged on a quarterly basis, a couple of hours of low or lost productivity can make a difference," says John A. Challenger, the firm's chief executive officer.

Here's the math: As many as 37.3 million workers are expected to partake of office pools during the 64-team tournament, and 1.5 million otherwise diligent drones are expected to sneak peeks at the games online from their desks.

For every ten minutes workers fritter away, the consulting firm says U.S. companies will lose about $109 million. The figure is calculated according to the average hourly wage for American workers, pegged at $17.50 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But there's no reason to believe the consultant's doomsday tale – or feel guilty about getting in on the action. Here's why:

  • Who says it's impossible to keep an eye on the game and your spreadsheets simultaneously? It's called multitasking.

  • The tournament begins March 16th and ends April 11th, suggesting a lot of toe-wiggling. In fact, the tournament will be played over ten days, only five of which are during the week

  • The estimate ignores the fact that many workers turn the wheels until the job's done. If the alleged slackers work overtime, any productivity lost watching the games is a wash for salaried workers.

  • NCAA March Madness on Demand is free, but the consultants may have overestimated the extent of broadband Internet access at work, or fans' desire to watch the games on a cramped computer monitor – which is about as exciting as a two-week vacation in Omaha.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas is adept at getting its name in the news with its March Madness shtick, Minyanville Meta Madness but its methodology appears to be wobbly. In 2005, the firm said March Madness would cost employers $889 million. The estimate rose to $3.8 billion the subsequent year, because a Gallup poll said 58 million people planned to follow the tournament. Polling, as election cycles teach us, is something of a leap of faith.

But never mind productivity. Web sites devoted to human resources warn middle managers that office pools undercut a company's gambling ban. But prosecutors are too burdened with major crimes and other distractions to target March Madness betters and office pools may not be as devastating to the bottom line as hired guns say.

In need of a vasectomy? The Oregon Urology Institute in Springfield offers a basketball-themed deal, urging men to "lower your seed for the tournament." Doctors typically recommend taking two to four days off after getting snipped, and the clinic says the NCAA tournament is a good time to do it. The deal comes with a "recovery kit" that includes sports magazines, pizza delivery and, ahem, a bag of frozen peas.

But even a couple of recovery days isn't irrefutable evidence of lost productivity: Chances are the time off is part of an allocated number of sick, personal or vacation days already factored into you personal output metric.

So the "evidence" pointing to a steep drop in productivity is certainly worth as hard a look as the NCAA tournament allegedly gets.

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