When the NCAA men’s basketball tournament tips off Thursday, millions of viewers at offices across the country will huddle over their screens of choice, doing their level best to look busy while toggling between spreadsheets and the Michigan State-Bradley game.
Welcome to March Madness, an annual rite of spring, where businesses decry the billions of dollars in lost productivity as workers cheer on their picks and check their office pool instead of filing that overdue report.
But in an era of full employment and smartphone streaming, some employers are taking a different approach: Put the games on big screen TVs, serve up some pizza and embrace the Madness.
“Everybody is doing it — watching the games — and everybody is in a pool,” said Tom Gimbel, founder and CEO of LaSalle Network, a Chicago-based staffing and recruiting agency. “The more the boss tries to hide it, the more people want it.”
Gimbel’s company was an early adopter. It hosts an annual March Madness office party on the first Friday of the tournament, inviting hundreds of clients and employees to don their favorite college sweatshirt and enjoy the games on 10 flat screen TVs, with a hot dog cart, kegs and other decidedly non-business amenities on hand.
The epiphany for Gimbel came about 10 years ago, when he learned to stop worrying about employees slacking off during the tournament.
“It hit me once, ‘Wait a minute — let’s go all in on this, let’s really enjoy it,’” Gimbel recalled.
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Celebrating March Madness instead of fighting it may be a long-term win for recruitment. But with more than 75 million employees spending 6.4 hours of work time watching basketball, it is projected to cost employers nearly $13.3 billion in lost productivity this year alone, according to Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.
Productivity is not the only item in the March Madness cost-benefit analysis, however.
“It is an enormous cost, but at the end of the day, trying to ban March Madness activities from the workplace would cost employers far more in employee morale, camaraderie and culture, which is particularly important when the labor market is really tight and companies are fighting to retain and attract the best people,” said Andrew Challenger, the outplacement firm’s vice president.
With legalized sports betting coming to a number of states, watching the games could become even more of an office distraction — or perk, depending on how it’s viewed — in the years ahead.
This year, 47 million American adults are projected to bet $8.5 billion on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, according to a survey released Monday by the American Gaming Association.
More than half that action — $4.6 billion — will be placed in 149 million brackets, including office pools.
The other $3.9 billion of March Madness wagering funnels mostly through illegal channels such as bookies and offshore gambling sites, but legal sports betting is on the rise after a Supreme Court ruling last year opened it up beyond Nevada to all states.
Some Iowa lawmakers are confident a sports betting bill will be sent to Gov. Kim Reynolds this session.
If all 50 states allowed legal sports betting this year, total wagering on March Madness would nearly double, topping $15 billion, according to Eilers and Krejcik Gaming, a California-based research-and-consulting firm.
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On Monday, accounting firm BKD also opened up its official company bracket to all employees. There is no entry fee, everybody participates, and employees are encouraged to follow along as the games play out.
The grand prize is a $25 gift certificate.
“It’s nothing significant — more the bragging rights,” LaMorte said.
Not all companies are as open-minded. The NCAA created a “boss button” so viewers streaming games could toggle to a faux spreadsheet when prying eyes got to close to their computer screen.
But the proliferation of smartphones makes streaming the games a relatively unobtrusive activity for any employee, and a bad bet for employers to try to suppress it.
“I think there’s just a can’t beat them, join them attitude, and a lot of companies are embracing the tournament in the workplace and I think that’s a really smart move,” Challenger said.