With the Olympics now behind us, this time of year usually marks the sports netherworld between the Super Bowl and the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, which is better known as March Madness. This lull provides employers with an excellent opportunity to contemplate the issues that March Madness creates in their workplace. We explore some of those issues below.
Participating in a NCAA bracket pool
Nothing presages the coming of spring like the NCAA tournament, and concurrently, perhaps nothing is as ubiquitous in the American workplace during this time period as NCAA bracket pools. Estimates of participating Americans are in the 50-60 million range and we can totally understand why. Even President Barack Obama completes a bracket each year (he even picked last year’s winner correctly). And we expect those numbers to go up because of contests like these: Quicken Loans is offering a $1 billion prize to anyone who completes the perfect bracket. The chances of doing that: 1 in 9.2 quintillion.
The typical workplace bracket pool scenario involves an email attaching a bracket or an embedded link to a website that requires you to sign up for and complete an online bracket; think: ESPN.com or cbsports.com (whose home page even promotes “co-worker” participation). Sometimes these emails are sent office-wide, other times they are limited to a select group of employees. The typical entry fee can range from $5 to $20 per bracket, with the winner collecting the biggest payout and the second and third place finishers collecting more moderate sums. Some brackets also return the last place “winner” his or her entry fee. The pool “manager” may also take a cut for dealing with the administrative burden (including having to stop by your cubicle at least twice a day for your entry fee). Of course, all this varies from pool to pool. We’ve heard of pools where the winner gets to donate the collected entry fees to the charity of his or her choice. We’ve heard of pools going in the opposing direction: $1,000 per entry, winner takes all. Overall, close to $2.5 billion is wagered on the tournament.
But is any of this legal? The results are mixed. On the federal level, probably not; on the state level, it depends on the state. Participation in a bracket pool may violate at least two federal laws. NCAA bracket pools that are conducted across state lines (i.e. a company pool involving offices from several states) or which are managed online (the vast majority), could violate the Interstate Wire Act of 1961. There is a “fantasy sports” exception to that law, but bracket pools don’t seem to fit within that exception since they require the individual to bet on the outcomes of the games. Participation in these bracket pools may also violate the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which prohibits wagers on sports anywhere, except in certain grandfathered states (Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana).
On the state level, while most states ban gambling, their gaming laws provide exceptions for so-called “social” or “recreational” gambling. While the particulars vary, to qualify for these exceptions: (1) all of the money in a pool must go to a winner or a charitable organization (i.e. the “house” does not receive any of the proceeds); (2) there must be a maximum amount a person can wager (like a $20 entry fee), and (3) the pool must be limited to a certain number of people with pre-existing relationships (like co-workers). Thus, in certain states, NCAA bracket pools that meet these requirements may be permissible. In Wisconsin, by contrast, NCAA bracket pools are illegal without exception. Sad, considering the Badgers are set to make a serious run at the NCAA Championship this year.
Based on the above, especially because of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the simplest and safest approach for (non-Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana) employers would be to prohibit NCAA bracket pools in the office. But realizing that this will likely not be the majority approach, if you are an employer comfortable enough to allow your employees to run an NCAA bracket pool, we would recommend setting certain parameters, including: (1) requiring employees to complete paper brackets instead of participating online, (2) prohibiting bracket pools that will result in employees participating in offices located across multiple states; (3) prohibiting employees from using company email or printers to administer the pool; (4) limiting the entry fees (i.e. $20 or less), (5) ensuring that the collected entry fees are distributed to the winner(s) (or charitable organization) and no portion goes to the house; and (6) threatening discipline if any employee pressures any other employee to participate in a bracket pool. Another option altogether is to allow your workers to participate in a bracket pool for free, with the winner collecting a prize.
Watching the games
Completing a bracket is one thing, but watching the games is where the fun really begins. You wake up Thursday morning annoyed that there’s still five hours before the first game tips off. Wait, this is 2014, not 2000; the tournament now boasts of 68 teams and starts on Tuesday with the “First Four” play-in games. But in reality, the tournament “starts” on Thursday, and in anticipation, your employees (and maybe even you) have probably done the following:
(a) Downloaded the CBS Sports app onto their computer, tablet or mobile device that will allow them to stream the games into their workspaces
(b) Arranged to watch some games at an “extended” lunch with some co-workers
(c) Called in “sick” (or did the honorable thing and took a preapproved vacation/paid time off day) so they can watch games
(d) All of the above
(e) None of the above
Regardless of how your employees (or you) would answer that question, the point is that come Thursday (and Friday) they will probably be focused on something unrelated to their job. And when their focus is elsewhere, job productivity suffers. And boy does it suffer. According Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm, this equates to $134 million in lost productivity on just the first two days of the tournament alone where at least 3 million employees will spend between 1-3 hours watching games at work and two-thirds of all workers will track games during the workday. We wouldn’t be surprised if this number climbs again this year as CBS continues to make it easier to stream games live.
So we know that lost productivity is an issue. But what about the related issue of employee morale? A survey conducted last year by OfficeTeam found that 20% of managers believe that the NCAA tournament has a positive effect on employee morale. Only 4% believed it had a negative effect and 1% didn’t know what effect it had. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that 75% of the managers surveyed believed that it had no effect whatsoever.
To us, the result of the productivity-morale equation is employer-specific and depends on the nature of your workplace and your business goals. For example, we can certainly see how management at an accounting firm may grow uneasy at a lack of focus from its employees as their clients’ tax filing deadline nears. At the same time, we can also see how management at this firm (perhaps if it’s located by Syracuse or Kentucky) may want to convert this into an employee appreciation moment, gather its employees in a conference room for an extended lunch and game-viewing session and take a breather from their overwhelming workloads.
Only you can best gauge what will motivate your workforce against how it will affect your bottom line. If you could care less about employee morale or don’t think it’s a factor, then consider blocking access to the streaming site or mobile app, remind employees of your acceptable computer use policy, and threaten disciplinary action as necessary. If you are concerned about lost productivity, but want to maintain or enhance employee morale, consider allowing employees to wear or display items related to their favorite college teams that day (whether it is Villanova, Wichita St. or “Anyone but Duke”). Consider designating certain times where employees are “free” to check scores, or consider going further and allowing employees a time and place to watch games. By tuning break-room television sets to the NCAA tournament and possibly adding pizza or popcorn to the mix, it represents a cheap investment that may boost employee morale and reduce some of the short-term productivity losses while producing long-term productivity gains.
Michael Arnold is a member in Mintz Levin’s New York office. He advises clients on complex employment litigation matters as well as on employee performance, retention and separation issues. Arnold is editor for and is a regular contributor to the Mintz Levin blog Employment Matters. Robert Sheridan is an associate in the firm’s Boston office, where he focuses his practice on litigation and counseling on federal and state labor and employment issues.
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