March Madness Basketball Tournament

The main action for the 2017 NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets underway Thursday, March 19, but the viral phenomenon known as March Madness officially sets in on Monday, March 16. That is when workers across the country begin clogging the company internet with efforts to craft a winning bracket for their workplace and non-workplace betting pools.

It is estimated that more than 60 million Americans fill out tournament brackets. Many of these individuals, including the President of the United States, take time out of their workday to complete these brackets, as well as conduct the research needed to make informed selections.

Of course, the distractions do not end with filling out the bracket. Even more productivity is lost over the first two full days of tournament play (Thursday and Friday), when a dozen games are played during work hours.

It is an annual tradition that has become woven into the fabric the American workplace and society at large. However, there is a cost in terms of lost wages paid to distracted and unproductive workers, and, this year, the cost could reach as high as $1.9 billion, according to calculations by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

“That figure may be on the conservative side, considering this year could garner a lot more interest from even casual basketball fans eager to see if Kentucky can continue its undefeated season through the tournament,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

“If Kentucky plays their first tournament game during the workday, it wouldn’t be shocking if every single working person in the state called in sick for the day or took an extra-long lunch break,” Challenger joked.

Challenger’s estimate is based on the number of working Americans who are likely to be caught up in March Madness; the estimated time spent filling out brackets and streaming games; and average hourly earnings, which, in January, stood at $24.78, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The challenge is estimating the number of people who participate in March Madness pools. A 2009 Microsoft survey, estimated that 50 million Americans participate in March Madness office pools. A 2014 article at Smithsonian.com put the number of Americans “filling out brackets” at 60 million.

Meanwhile, a 2012 MSN survey found that 86 percent of workers will devote at least part of their workday to updating brackets, checking scores and following games during the tournament. If that survey sample was representative of the US workforce, it means that the number the working Americans with “March Madness” could reach 119 million.

Furthermore, the MSN survey indicated that 56 percent of workers planned to spend at least one hour on March Madness activities. Assuming that holds for this year’s tournament, that is roughly 77.7 million workers who will each cost their employers an average of $24.78 in wages for an hour of wasted productivity. That comes to a total of $1.9 billion for the group. (77.7 million X $24.78)

Even with the most conservative estimates, March Madness is still costly. A 2013 survey by CareerBuilder.com found that 19 percent of private sector workers participated in March Madness office pools. Based on the latest private-sector payroll data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 19 percent represents about 22.3 million worker

Each hour of unproductive work time for these 22.3 million March Madness pool participants costs the nation’s employers $552.6 million.

“Of course, the 22.3 million figure leaves out public-sector workers. However, they too get caught up in March Madness. In fact, the most powerful public-sector worker in the country – President Obama – has filled out a bracket each year he’s been in office,” said Challenger.

“While some might argue that measuring productivity for salaried workers, including the president, is very difficult. After all, these workers are not confined to a 9-to-5 workday. So, if a little time during the workday is spent filling out a bracket, that work will be made up at another time.

“However, it is important to remember that hourly-wage earners number 77.2 million, representing more than 52 percent all workers. And, it is not just low-skilled minimum wage earners who are clock punchers. Many professionals, the most notable being attorneys, charge for their services on an hourly basis,” Challenger noted.

“Additionally, while it may have once been true that only deskbound office workers with internet access were at risk of being distracted by the tournament, now anyone with a mobile phone can get in on the action. Armed with ubiquitous tablets and smart phones, even hourly workers in the field may be consumed by the tournament,” said Challenger.

So, employers should ban workplace pools and block access to streaming sites, right?

“Absolutely not,” said Challenger.

“This tournament and the betting and bracket-building that come with it are ingrained in the national fabric. Trying to stop it would be like trying to stop a freight train. When even the president finds time to fill out a bracket, an employer would be hard pressed to come up with a legitimate reason to clamp down on March Madness activities,” said Challenger.

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