The National Football League season officially begins today as the Cowboys take on the division-rival Giants at MetLife Stadium. But another season has already begun for 24.3 million Americans, and its playing field includes the workplace: fantasy football.

The Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimates that 8.2% of fantasy football participants are unemployed (yes, they beat the national average), which leaves 22.3 million wage-earning players who, according to market data, spend up to nine hours a week planning strategies, swapping draft picks and mining statistics.

If, theoretically, each of those players (who, theoretically, earn the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average U.S. salary of $19.33 an hour) spends an hour a week at work actually working on their fantasy league for the duration of the season, then, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the cost to employers in unproductive wages would be $6.5 billion.

Flag on the play – you made that number up.

“Before fantasy football players around the country launch a letter-writing campaign lambasting our numbers, it is important to realize that even if this figure was verifiable and accurate, it would not even register as a blip on the economic radar,” says John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Employers will not see any impact on their bottom line and, for the most part, business will proceed as usual.

However, even if the economic impact is faint, it is important to acknowledge fantasy football’s overall impact as a societal and workplace phenomenon. Companies that embrace the growing popularity of this activity could actually see a positive impact, particularly in terms of employee sentiment and loyalty. Those that try to squash employees’ use of time and the company Internet for fantasy football could see consequences far worse than a few distracted workers,” Challenger says.

Challenger points to a 2006 Ipsos survey in which 40% of respondents said fantasy sports were a positive influence the work place, 40% said it increases employee camaraderie and 20% said playing a fantasy sport had allowed them to make a valuable business contact. In addition, Challenger notes, more recent research out of the National University of Singapore finds that occasional non-work-related web browsing at the office can refresh tired workers and enhance overall productivity.

In any event, supervisors and HR personnel might be better judges of when Peyton Manning or Robert Griffin III is impacting their bottom line on a case-by-case basis, as opposed to a company-wide ban.

“Even at level, though, it might not be worth cracking down on fantasy football, unless the quantity or quality of an individual’s work drops off significantly,” Challenger says.

Fantasy league participation might seem troublingly active to HR personnel, and thus more likely to detract and not just distract, but some participants shrug off concerns as a nonissue. Chip Knighton, a former sports writer and editor who currently works as a communications specialist, has supervised employees who sometimes bring fantasy football to the workplace, and he currently is one himself.

“It’s not the most productive thing I do at work, but it’s a good break,” Knighton says. “People need to take a few minutes every now and again to clear their head, and fantasy football helps me do that.”

The trick, Knighton says, is to avoid a pair of penalties: unsportsmanlike conduct and delay of game.

“It’s really no different than any other sort of break activity – if there’s a problem with productivity, that’s when you’d start cracking down,” he says. “I think that work leagues can build staff camaraderie, too, as long as you don’t get someone who takes it way too seriously.”

Tristan Lejeune is an associate editor with Employee Benefit News.

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