Image: Mount St. Mary's guard Chris Vann
Skip Peterson  /  AP file
Chris Vann celebrates after Mount St. Mary's beat Coppin State 69-60 in the opening round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/19/2008 12:21:35 PM ET 2008-03-19T16:21:35

As spring officially arrives this week, Brendan Nicholas, who works at AbleForce, a staffing and placement firm in San Diego, will once again be chained to his computer. But it won’t be all drudgery Thursday and Friday – he’ll be checking scores and streaming video of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

How much he follows the contests, which tip off at 9 a.m. West Coast time on March 20, “depends on two things: How close are the games and how busy am I?” noted the University of Montana graduate, who will monitor the results even though his alma mater was not invited to play.

If normally staid employees are pumping their fists while staring at computer screens Thursday and Friday, no need to call security. March Madness once again is set to dominate the lives of millions of workers.

Thirty-two games will be contested March 20 and 21, the majority of them during U.S. office hours. With 64 teams boasting hundreds of thousands of alumni across the land – many stuck in the workplace – the only way die-hard and casual fans can unearth information on their favorites is via the office computer.

Since March Madness is structured in a sudden-death manner – one loss and you’re out – no one wants to miss the action, especially if one’s school has received a rare invitation to the tournament. Even those stuck in meetings will sneak a look at their Blackberries to find out if their favorite team will survive until the weekend.

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago estimated this whole March Madness obsession at the workplace would cost more than $1.7 billion in lost productivity during this year’s tournament, but those numbers have the ring of exaggeration to them. True, close to 60 million Americans identify themselves as college basketball fans, but of course not all of their teams make the three-week tournament – nor do all of them work.

Still, there’s no doubt buildings will be buzzing with employees getting paid merely to see if the likes of North Carolina or UCLA will suffer an early upset. In a 2006 survey conducted by Harris Interactive, about 60 percent of respondents admitted to surfing non-work-related sites while on the job. About 25 percent of the respondents use streaming media at least once a week at work.

That streaming media figure is guaranteed to jump during the first two days of March Madness this year. For the first time, CBSSports.com is offering every game via Web video without making users register for the privilege. In past years, CBSSports.com has streamed fewer games and, between 2003-2005, charged visitors for access to March Madness On Demand. In 2007, 1.4 million people registered to watch the games online at the site, but with the registration tossed aside, the numbers will soar.

During these tension-filled days, there will be hoops fans desperate for information who won’t be able to procure it. Companies large and small block access to a number of sites, and sports sites are not far behind pornographic pages and other choices at the top of the list. Basically, unless you’re in the sports or in the media industry, employers believe visiting sports sites is a waste of company time.

Of course, the Web wasn’t the first March Madness distraction at the workplace – and in smaller offices without T1 lines, it’s not even the biggest one. The March Madness office pool dominates conversation around this time of year. Even secretaries who care nothing about college hoops (and know even less) sign up – and sometimes stun even the workplace basketball junkies by winning. Most firms have given up fighting the office pool, maintaining that it “bonds” workers. And, as mentioned in this month’s issue of GQ, “winning the pool may be as close as any of them come to a bonus this year.”

Many pools have gravitated to the Web, where they are easier to follow and are automatically updated. For college basketball fans who double as office workers, the Web almost sounds like heaven – until the boss shows up. Some sites have anticipated that possibility. As part of its March Madness On Demand package, CBSSports.com has provided a Boss Button. With a click, a serious-looking chart and statistics pop up (though if the boss examines it, he or she will see it refers to how much food is consumed during March Madness).

But some workers will react differently to an unscheduled visit. What will Nicholas do if his boss comes by?“Provide some of my insight on the game,” he said, “and ask him to get me another beer.”

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