OLD Media Moves

Coverage of NCAA tournament productivity story is bogus

March 22, 2006

Jack Shafer of Slate laments the recent coverage that a number of business sections have given to a recent study predicting the billions of dollars in lost productivity from workers watching the NCAA basketball tournament on their computers — or at bars outside of the workplace.

March MadnessShafer notes, “Such prominent news sources as the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Daily Press of Newport News, Va., Florida Today, the Kansas City Star, MarketWatch, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Denver Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Orlando Sentinel, The CBS Evening News, the Washington Post, the Miami Herald, the San Jose Mercury News, the Baltimore Sun, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe publicized the $3.8 billion estimate contained in a Feb. 28 press release by consultant John A. Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray, & Christmas.”

But he disputes the study’s findings and argues that reporters may have been duped into writing the story as a way to generate publicity for the Challenger firm, which makes money by having clients who want to increase worker productivity.

Shafer writes, “In concocting his lost-productivity estimate, Challenger doesn’t acknowledge that ‘wasted time’ is built into every workday. Workers routinely shop during office hours, take extended coffee breaks, talk to friends on the phone, enjoy long lunches, or gossip around the water cooler. It’s likely that NCAA tourney fans merely reallocate to the games the time they ordinarily waste elsewhere. Likewise, many office workers who don’t complete their tasks by the end of the day stay late or take work home. If fans who screw off at work ultimately do their work at home, the alleged ‘loss’ to productivity would be a wash.

March Madness“Last, the fear that millions of workers will waste time watching the games live for hours at the office is groundless. More than two-thirds of the games are played on weeknights or weekends, when very few employees are stuck behind their work terminals. Besides, the CBS system can only accommodate 200,000 computers at a time, as the Daily Press noted in its story. My unsolicited advice to my press colleagues is to beware of grand estimates such as Challenger’s, and to anxious supervisors, I counsel you to worry less about how your employees waste time and more about how much they screw off.”

Some in the media have caught on. The Wall Street Journal’s Carl Bialik also criticized the Challenger study, writing, “The firm assumes that all workers who are college-basketball fans will surf the Web for news about the tournament (it further assumes that all workers have Internet connections), and that the time they spend isn’t made up for elsewhere in the workday. Thus, Challenger figures the ‘cost’ to businesses is equal to the salary paid to those workers while they’re surfing.”

Hannah Clark of Forbes, in a posting called “The (Overblown) Cost of March Madness,” wrote, “The men’s college basketball tournament, known as March Madness, dominates office conversation for three weeks. And worker productivity steadily drains away, as employees focus on the tournament instead of the bottom line. Or so the story goes.

“For the first time, most games in the 2006 National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament will be broadcast online for free. That’s one reason why consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas has estimated March Madness will cost $3.8 billion in lost productivity. But that estimate should be taken with a boulder of salt.”

Finally, St. Louis Post Dispatch business columnist David Nicklaus wrote, “The math is good, but the logic isn’t. If you dine out this weekend, ask your waitress if she plans to watch basketball on the job. You’ll get a laugh if you’re lucky, and a spilled cup of coffee if you’re not. For nearly all of America’s 10.6 million food-service workers, 10 million factory workers, 9.6 million transportation workers and 4.6 million groundskeepers, cleaners and maintenance workers, a hoops webcast at work is out of the question.

“Even among office workers, who seem to be at highest risk for time-wasting activity, it’s not clear that the availability of game video will harm employers.”

As for everyone else’s coverage, it’s time to call a technical foul. Or ban them from next year’s office pool. By the way, I have UConn going all the way in at least three pools. And we have TVs here in the building, so we don’t need to use the Internet to watch the games.

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