Is March Madness Really Good for the Economy?

Despite claims of millions in lost productivity, some experts say watching the NCAA tournament at work can boost morale -- and the bottom line. Why some bosses are starting to take notice.

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It's madness! March Madness can be a big win for companies, if they use it to motivate employees.March Madness -- that annual feverish distraction for NCAA men's college basketball fans -- is now in full swing. Thanks to this year's extra games, additional coverage and new high-tech solutions designed to give fans easier access to the tournament on their smartphones, iPads and other gadgets, viewership is expected to skyrocket to 8.4 million hours during the workday, according to global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. And the potential loss in productivity could have a huge impact on the economy. In fact, the estimated time spent on in-office game viewing, multiplied by each private sector employee's average hourly earnings of $22.87, could easily add up to $192 million worth of financial loss.

But March Madness doesn't have to bench your workplace. Instead, for savvy managers and entrepreneurs who embrace the inevitable distraction, it can be a valuable team-building experience and even a way for basketball-loving employees to bond.

Don Forsyth, a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, studies group dynamics and has specifically watched how March Madness affects all Americans in the workplace -- from the office assistant all the way up to the CEO. While employees may be less productive for a few days, he says, there are plenty of benefits. "It can draw people together," he says. "You're able to use those moments to build valuable interpersonal relationships." March Madness can actually build more productive teams. When employees experience rituals like filling out brackets together, they learn new ways to work together toward a common goal, according to Forsyth.

Based in Glastonbury, Conn., the heart of the University of Connecticut's "Huskies Country," Cronin Marketing Communications uses the NCAA tournament as an excuse to help bring together its 55 employees -- 20 percent of whom are UConn graduates.

"We bleed UConn blue and still get work done during March Madness," says Steve Wolfberg, Cronin's president and chief creative officer and also a UConn alum. "It's a great bonding experience for our company. Most employees participate in a bracket pool, and if UConn games are played during the afternoon, we bring in lunch for the staff and all watch."

Wolfberg and partner Kim Manning, a fellow Huskie, try to lead by example. "Admittedly, this time of year, that example isn't the most productive," Wolfberg says. "But we feel that a little distraction for the greater good -- another national championship -- is worth it."

Besides the increased energy helping to refresh the office, Wolfberg notices another effect: "People wear their UConn clothing, which can be an improvement for some of our less fashionable employees."

Some bosses feel so anxious about March and its ensuing madness that they install website blocking software to prevent employees from accessing sports sites during the workday. Kenneth C. Wisnefski, founder and CEO of WebiMax, a Mount Laurel, N.J.-based SEO and online marketing firm with 100 employees, notes significant productivity losses during March Madness, especially when there are big games scheduled during business hours. However, instead of trying to block ESPN.com and other websites, he uses March Madness to increase productivity in a fun way.

"Our employees are broken down into teams led by project managers," he says. "Each team has five members. At the end of February, I review each team and rank them in order based on their performance during that month." When he has the teams ranked according to client acquisition, revenue growth and other factors, he lets the winning team in each category pick one game during the tournament they want to watch. "Then I allow them to watch their game in the conference room. This essentially is me rewarding our top performing teams with a two-hour lunch and a chance to watch their favorite match-up." Because February is the shortest sales month, Wisnefski says the incentive boosts productivity and camaraderie through a typically challenging month and shows his employees that he appreciates their hard work.

Despite the hangovers, missed work, depression and other downsides that also come with the NCAA tournament -- "It's called March Madness for a reason," Forsyth says -- he adds that the shared experience is what can make the Big Dance good for business. "Wanting to bond psychologically with others is normal -- so normal, it's part of human nature. We're conformists and we tend to go along with what other people do. If everyone is a fan of basketball in March, then we'll be fans of basketball in March."

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