March Madness: No Need to Despair


basketballsThat’s right, March Madness is here. Again, it’s the the time of the year eagerly anticipated by college basketball fans. The entire college basketball season packed into 63 action-packed games.

And what does all of this frenzied excitement have to do with employers? Lots.

$1.7 billion lost to March Madness basketball?

First, there’s the cost. March Madness costs employers big bucks. It’s estimated that the average American employee spends 13.5 minutes per day surfing the web for college basketball updates, video, and betting forums. I’m sure there are some who would say that estimate is fairly low. But, at even 13.5 minutes per day, 58.5 million college basketball fans times the average American hourly wage equals $1.7 billion, spread out over the 16 basketball tournament days.

That’s right, $1.7 billion in 16 days.

Other Financial Costs
Lost productivity is obviously a monster-sized problem for employers. But that’s not the only cost incurred during the tournament season. With games being broadcast both live and recorded on the internet, employees don’t have to worry about the trouble of finding a television within viewing distance. Instead, they’ve got the whole world wide web of sports action at their fingertips. And, while productivity goes down, so does your network’s speed. It doesn’t take many employees watching live-streaming video to slow your system to a crawl.

Now, all of the employees who actually aren’t watching the games can’t do work, even if they wanted to.

Other Employer Considerations

Productivity issues require employers to make (or avoid) decisions about internet usage monitoring. But there are other issues, as well. For one, there’s the issue of the office pool. Is gambling at work illegal? Does it put employers at risk legally? Well, it is unlikely that your workplace will be surrounded by a SWAT team in an ambush attack on your illicit gambling ring over an office basketball pool.

Yet, employers should decide what exactly their position actually is. If an employer allows staff to participate in a pool, the company cannot take any of the funds from the pool. The ante should be small, $5 or less. And the pool must be strictly voluntary. Persons who have a religious objection to gambling, for example, should not be made to feel “left out” of the comraderie just because they declined to toss their $5 into the pot.

And there is another, broader legal implication. Someone set up the pool. Someone is collecting money from participants for the pool. Someone is monitoring the status of the pool. And, likely, everyone is e-mailing about the pool. Also likely is that all of this hard work and dedication (towards non-work activities) is happening during working time.

This is where it really doesn’t pay to be the nice guy, just this once. This is soliciting at work. Just like employees who sell their daughter’s Girl Scout cookies is soliciting. Just like asking for donations to a charity is soliciting. Just like an employee who hands out catalogues and ordering forrms for a “jewelry party” (the modern-day incarnation of the Tupperware party) she is hosting is soliciting.

And just like union salters who try to plant the seeds for a union campaign is soliciting.

The reason employers have non-solictitation policies is to avoid all of the above. By permitting employees to solicit at work, even just this one time, you risk liability later when the union representative wants to solicit your employees to go union.

But There is an Up Side

Okay, okay. I know that I’ve painted such a grim picture of such a fun time but have faith. Here’s the upswing. Employers need to know about these risks and consciously decide how to handle each one. But, by “handling it,” I don’t necessarily mean firing everyone who participates in the pool or scans the web for the latest updates. There are more reasonable alternatives.

For example, get involved. Instead of being on the outside looking in trying to scope out the secret world of workplace sports pools, companies can consider organizing the pools. Of course, this isn’t a free ticket to ignore the rules of the game, as discussed above. But you could put a positive spin on it.

Why not have a portion of the winnings go to a local charity. Maybe one that the company has a history of supporting. Or maybe the pool winner(s) get to decide. Or even assign charitable organizations to each team and, when that team wins, the charity wins.

Another example might be sanctioned viewing. If you are inclined to restrict internet access to sports websites, announce that the restrictions are lifted and employees are free to view the games at certain designated times.

If your workplace has televisions in conference rooms or the cafeteria, make it a company-sponsored social time. Sporting events are as much “team-building” as any nature hike or rock-climbing experience. At Young Conaway, I’m proud to say that we practice what we preach. On Monday evening, before the game, our firm hosts a now annual Alumni event. All of the former attorneys who have gone on to don a black robe, opened their own practice, or went off to any other adventure, are welcomed back to talk sports and law, and eveything in between, and, while they’re at it, to catch up with former colleagues. We have a tremendous turn-out for what has become a really great event.

So, the moral of the story is, make a decision, communicate the decision, and, whenever possible, include comraderie in the solution. It’s a win-win all around.

Some thoughts from others in the know:

The Baltimore Sun discusses the upside to March Madness and how employers can utilize the basketball season to bring employees together. See the full article here.

The HR Capitalist has some quick-witted insight on the unavoidability of March Madness at

The N.Y. Times has an informative Q & A on the office pool here, which Representing Management discusses with a legal focus here.

The Beazley Source tackles the cost of March Madness to productivity and the bottom line here. CNN’s Money page does the same here.