The National College Athletic Association’s Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, better known as March Madness, are upon us in the US. In the next few weeks leading up to the championship game on April 2, millions of Americans will devote millions of hours to watching the games, talking about them, betting on them, checking scores, and comparing tournament brackets with other fans. Last year’s tournament was watched by an average of 10.4 million television viewers and generated 98 million live streams, while the television audience of the championship game averaged 23 million viewers.
So if you’re a US employer, it’s reasonable to assume that at least some of your employees are going to come down with March Madness this month, potentially distracting them from their work. An OfficeTeam survey conducted in February found that the average worker spends 25.5 minutes per workday on sports-related activities during the tournament, or a total of about six hours. Nearly half of the professionals surveyed said they love celebrating sporting events like March Madness in the office.
The cost of that distraction? According to an estimate from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, US employers could stand to lose “$2.3 billion per hour in time employees are engaged with the tournament at work”:
More than 40 million Americans fill out tournament brackets, according to the American Gaming Association. Applying the current employment-to-population ratio to that figure indicates that 23.7 million workers will fill out brackets for this year’s games. 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.
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 $26.74, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Losing productivity to major sporting events is nothing new for employers: Last month’s Super Bowl, for example, was watched by over 103 million people on television. While the Super Bowl is played on a Sunday, the number of employees who called in sick or showed up late to work the following Monday may have cost employers as much as $3 billion, Challenger estimated before the game. Some employers have caved to the inevitability of mass absenteeism on Super Bowl Monday and decided to give employees the day off, with some even calling for it to be declared a national holiday.
March Madness is not conducive to such a solution, as it takes place over the course of several weeks. Instead, employers have a choice of trying to police employees attempting to watch basketball at work, writing off the productivity loss as inevitable, or embracing the event as an opportunity to build employee engagement and camaraderie.
In an Office Team survey last year, 23 percent of senior managers said their company organized activities tied to sporting events like March Madness. Past surveys have indicated that most managers don’t see March Madness as a significant drain on productivity, and that one in five believe activities related to the event boost employee morale, so perhaps embracing (or tolerating) March Madness is a more productive strategy than trying to keep it out of the office.