Is the NCAA Tournament Really a Bad Thing for the US Economy?

Tom Weir@@tomweirsportsFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

USA Today

Most employees have an annual performance review in which the bosses grade their work. But this week is when that judgmental process should get flipped, giving the people a chance to rate those who are calling the shots.

That's because opening week of the NCAA tournament is when the worker bees can tell whether their supervisors and CEOs have a heart inside their chests, or just a cash register.

There's plenty of financial incentive out there for top executives to justify placing a 9-to-5 ban on all March Madness-related activity. Leading the way for several years is the global outplacement firm of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Every year at about this time, CG&C ships out a widely referenced press release that assesses the economic damage the tournament creates:

The 2014 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is still about one week away, but the nation’s employers already may be bracing for the inevitable dip in productivity resulting from office pools and online streaming. With an estimated 50 million Americans participating in March Madness office pools, companies stand to lose at least $1.2 billion for every unproductive work hour during the first week of the tournament, according to calculations by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

The press release goes on to say the tournament's first week "is particularly hazardous to workplace productivity," and it warns that work output and company-wide Internet speeds are about to plummet.

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The Wichita State Shockers enter the tournament 34-0.
The Wichita State Shockers enter the tournament 34-0.Bill Boyce/Associated Press/Associated Press

The left coast gets this particularly stiff warning: "Meanwhile, in California, where tournament coverage begins at 9:00 am, workers can spend the entire workday streaming games on their computer or mobile device.”

But anyone who's ever experienced a bout of bracket fever doesn't need a press release to understand why the boss' blood pressure may escalate during the next three weeks. We've all taken a guilty glance at the rows of empty desks and unused computer terminals when an upset is about to be sealed, and then gone right on hustling to the coffee room to watch the CBS feed.

One of the main factors in the CG&C computation is that millions of work hours are believed to be wasted when employees talk about the tournament rather than hunker down in their cubicles. 

Okay then, wise guys, tell us how much havoc Miley Cyrus heaped upon the American economy when she sailed off the rails with her raunchy performance at last summer's MTV Video Music Awards?

Is it wrong to be mesmerized by Louisville lighting it up from beyond the arc but OK to check out the latest dirt shoveled by Perez Hilton? Do those who delight in seeing Jim Boeheim twist in the wind deserve to be punished more than those who can't resist checking in on Grumpy Cat?

We humans are creative, and also sneaky. We have smartphones and myriad other gadgets, and the more you try to corral us, the faster and farther we will slip off into cyberspace to prove your quest is as hopeless as bolstering the profit margin by tracking missing paper clips.

The NCAA obsession is hardly a new quirk in the American psyche. Ask somebody who's actually old enough to remember when the World Series was played during daylight, and they'll tell you about kids who sneaked transistor radios into class so they could keep tabs on how many strikeouts Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson were ringing up.

Skipped work time predates Internet streaming by decades. The NCAA version is merely a first cousin of last-minute Christmas shopping, parent-teacher conferences and the April anxiety rush to get taxes filed on time. The only difference is no one celebrates buying a gift for Aunt Mildred the way they do a buzzer-beater.

Only a boss who's a foolor who doesn't have a lifefails to see these lulls coming. Those execs have a choice. They can be likened to Scrooge and the Grinch and referenced as the vice president in charge of Hoops Hating. Or they can mesh with the people they hired and learn to take a joke about having a gift for picking No. 5 seeds that lose to No. 12s.

Fun Facts About the NCAA Tournament and the U.S. Economy
Number of Americans who participate in office pools50 million
Estimated cost of employees filling out brackets at work$1.2 billion
Estimated cost of employees watching games at work$660 million
Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

A 2009 Microsoft survey mirrored Challenger, Gray & Christmas' outlook, estimating that 50 million Americans participate in March Madness office pools. Yes, 50 million. That's about equal to the population of Spain.

What's funny is that the same survey found that 22 percent of bracket bettors expected their wagers to outperform their 401(k). (Take that, financial advisors.)

But the Microsoft survey also found that NCAA devotees are grounded when it comes to personal economics. About 75 percent of those surveyed said if they won $1 million in a bracket contest, they would either reduce their debts or put the cash into savings.

So doesn't it make sense that those same right-minded folks will find a reasonable way to compensate for the work time they spend agonizing over their alma mater's missed free throws?

And if the NCAA tournament is such a disruptive economic force, shouldn't we be able to quantify that destruction with something more tangible than guesstimates of how much water-cooler chatter it generates? Something like, say, the Dow Jones industrial average?

Don't try to tell Michigan's fans there's anything wrong with the NCAA tourney.
Don't try to tell Michigan's fans there's anything wrong with the NCAA tourney.Tony Ding/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Last year, the tournament began with "First Four" games on March 19 and ended with the April 8 championship finale. During that same period, the Dow rose 161.4 points. And on the supposedly recession-prone first Thursday and Friday, it stayed pancake flatopening at 14,511.70 on Thursday and closing at 14,512.00 on Friday.

Yet, the naysayers gang up on the NCAA tournament more than any other sports event. One stat that's trotted out often is the FBI estimate that March Madness generates $2.5 billion in illegal (and untaxed) wagering. But that doesn't even come close to the $80-$100 billion that's bet on the NFL every season, or the $60-$70 billion that's believed to be gambled annually on college football.

The Florida Gators have won 26 straight games.
The Florida Gators have won 26 straight games.John Bazemore/Associated Press

So let's get the bean counters to get off the tournament's back. This is the time of year when coworkers huddle close around the TV and get to know each other. (Joe in marketing went to Michigan's business school? Who knew? Guess he's not as dumb as he looks.)

It's when the boring woman in accounts payable breaks out her school colors, and it's when hope springs eternal that this will finally be the year you'll be the one to claim the office pool. (And then, of course, blow it by springing for a round or three.)

It doesn't take an MBA to grasp that simple truth. And any boss who thinks differently just doesn't get it.

Or perhaps they need help with their brackets.

All Your Bracket Essentials

Tom Weir covered 15 Final Fours as a columnist and reporter for USA Today. Follow him on Twitter at @TomWeirSports.

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