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More people will watch March Madness while they pretend to WFH. Bosses probably shouldn’t fight it

March Madness viewing is expected to cost businesses more than usual in productivity, but after a year of remote work, employees could use the diversion.

More people will watch March Madness while they pretend to WFH. Bosses probably shouldn’t fight it
[Photos: rawpixel (laptop 1) (laptop 2) (monitor); Mary Kouw/CBS; Ryan Sepulveda, Hannah Gibbs, NeONBRAND/Unsplash]
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Jess Lampi has her March Madness viewing plan all ready: She’s going to watch the college basketball tournament on her main TV and then bring out a second TV to be able to keep track of analytics and sports reporters’ tertiary comments. The annual spring tradition will unfold this year in the living room of her Houston home, where she’ll remain glued to the games, while doing her work as a tanker broker for an oil and gas company.

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The 25-year-old is one of millions of Americans who will blend WFH and NCAA. A chunk of those, including Lampi, will be watching all the shooting, scoring, and dunking without the approval of her bosses, now many miles away from her work station, not roaming the office floor for employees discreetly cheering on their bracket picks.

March Madness viewing is expected to cost businesses an estimated $13.8 billion in productivity this year, according to the Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That’s up from $13.3 billion in 2019. (In 2020, March Madness—what would’ve been the 82nd NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament—was called off due to COVID-19.)

“A lot of those games are during the day and during working hours,” says Andy Challenger, SVP of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “With people working from home, it’s inevitable that more people will be spending more time participating in March Madness. There’s pent-up demand for activities like this . . . The fact this year it’s back on feels like the beginning of the end, a return to normalcy, and people are really, really craving it.”

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More than passive viewing

Fans spend hours researching the teams, filling out brackets, tracking the experts’ commentary, and of course, watching the games. Often, betting pools among friends, family, or—gasp—coworkers can net a winner a few bucks or hundreds of dollars, and online bracket competitions can come with huge purses.

This year’s March Madness is unique in the competition’s history. It comes after a one-year hiatus, when the United States first began to lock down. A little more than 365 days later, the tournament returns just as the much-awaited COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out. A feeling of hope abounds, as life begin to slowly return to what it once was or close to it—hugging elderly relatives, going to movie theaters, returning to in-school learning.

“I miss sports and finally have something to look forward to this spring,” says Lampi, who played small forward in high school and was very disappointed when the 2020 games were canceled. “It’s something I never knew would be taken from me. I kind of took it for granted. It makes me really happy to have it back.”

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As she tunes into the games, she’ll be tuning out at work. Her bosses don’t know her plan to watch Alabama, LSU, and Texas—”Big Brother’s always watching, so I don’t do any of my personal [stuff] on my laptop, like I’m not logged into a thing.”—and she’s doing a $5-bracket pool with friends and one with family that has only bragging rights as the prize.

Bosses, maybe don’t try to fight it

Challenger advises companies to embrace—rather than fight—March Madness. Instead of prohibiting watching it, they could turn it into a team-bonding experience by sanctioning an office pool or hosting a Zoom viewing party. With employees cast out from offices, the cheers and groans that come from watching the nation’s top college basketball stars, rooting for the small schools, and simply bonding over the Big Dance could ultimately be beneficial to businesses.

“This year, it’s a different level of importance,” Challenger says. “People have been isolated for so long. It’s difficult for companies to find ways for employees to connect in some way not related to work. This is just a lay-up—no pun intended. It’s easy to do. Companies need to invest in company culture and taking advantage of opportunities like this is just essential right now.”

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The tournament that starts on Thursday has extra meaning this year. When the previous one was canceled, “social distancing” was still a new term and masks were far from being a universal accessory. The return of March Madness signals a slow reinstatement of the ebbs and flows of the life we used to know, including occasions like a hops competition that rivets much of the nation.

“It increases opportunities to connect with friends and joke around. You get a lot of joy from these annual rituals. It’s very important to the human experience,” explains Donell Barnett, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Human Services’ Division of Mental Health. “It’s extra important, because we’ve been missing these connections for so long.”

He also predicts that more viewers will tune in to the 2021 March Madness than in the past. (Fans know it’s already a big business. According to WalletHub, the economic impact on Indianapolis from this year’s championship is projected to be $100 million and the NCAA distributed $168.6 million to D1 schools this year. Also, factor in the unquantifiable publicity that colleges get from participating, which translates into student enrollment and alumni donations.)

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“Recreation is in short supply these days,” Barnett says. “People are looking for opportunities to get plugged in, have some fun, and take a break from the stresses and pressures folks have been suffering over the last year. Finding happiness where you can is at a premium.”