Work Farce Initiative: March madness hits the workplace

Posted: 6:55 pm
Thu, March 18, 2010
By Liz Farmer 

They call it March Madness for a reason — and it’s not always about what happens on the basketball court.

During the first two days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which started Thursday, offices around the country are transformed, and otherwise normal employees can become strangely insane.

Conservative business attire is ditched for unfashionably bright team colors, pizza and other junk food replaces the well-rounded lunch, and the only conferences going on in conference rooms are during commercial breaks to discuss how everyone’s bracket predictions are faring.

The tournament can create quite a dilemma for people when normal life interferes with their alma maters’ games.

Richard Jaklitsch of the Jaklitsch Law Group in Upper Marlboro faced that problem when he and other co-workers wanted to watch the University of Maryland take on the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in the first round of the tournament. It was 2003 and they were attending an Anne Arundel Bar Association event, and he had convinced the hotel bar manager to put the game on the television.

But the manager refused to play it with sound because the hotel had hired a singer to entertain its bar crowd.

“We ended up paying her to go away,” said Jaklitsch, also president of the Terrapin Club, which raises money to fund scholarships for all 27 of Maryland’s intercollegiate teams. “After that, they had no choice but to turn up the volume — we had a blast.”

That was the night the Terps’ Drew Nicholas hit a buzzer beater to win the game and advance Maryland to the next round.

“There were maybe 10 people in that bar, but it started filling up after the singer left,” said Jaklitsch. “I bet you there were 80 people crammed in there by the end, and the whole place went nuts after that shot.”

Buzzer-beaters, lower-ranked schools pulling off upsets of perennial powers and Cinderella teams are among the things that define March Madness on the court. And off the court, office pools, good-natured ribbing and hearing the word “bracket” or “bracketology” at least 20 times a day rounds out the craziness that the national tournament can create in the workplace.

58 million participants

And it’s not just for rabid sports fans — like the NFL’s Super Bowl, it’s an event of such proportions that even the casual fan gets involved. Employment researchers estimate roughly 58 million workers will participate in college hoops bracket challenges this year.

At Yahoo! Sports, one of many Web sites that offer bracket challenges, more than 2 million people fill out at least one bracket, according to David Geller, director of fantasy products. The site’s March Madness challenges are second only in popularity to its fantasy football service, and the number of brackets filled out through Yahoo! grew by 11 percent last year, he said.

“People are checking picks throughout the day and during the games themselves — we have crazy amounts of engagement once the tournament starts,” Geller said. “The excitement around the actual event itself drives a lot more people who aren’t necessarily sports nuts toward playing the game.”

At the Baltimore public relations firm Warschawski, Senior Director Susan Goodell said keeping tabs on games throughout the day and participating in an office pool is a companywide affair. And, she noted, the person in the office who knows the least about sports has won the last two office pools.

“So you try to step it up, but really, what can you do?” she said. “It’s unpredictable — that’s why [the tournament is] so much fun.”

Nicole Ames, marketing director for the law firm Hodes, Pessin & Katz PA in Towson, admits she does a “horrible job” filling out her brackets for the firm’s officewide contest and has gotten a razzing or two from her co-workers. Between 60 and 80 people out of the firm’s roughly 100 employees typically participate each year, and the firm offers cash prizes to the top winners.

“I still take it pretty seriously, and I look forward to doing the pool and seeing where I end up,” she said. “This time of year I think everybody’s looking for some kind of diversion. … I’ve worked at other firms, and none of them take it to this extreme.”

A bracket ‘maestro’

Kevin Bress, who manages the firm’s office pool, said he can tell when employees log on to check their status and it’s not unusual to see activity at 6 or 7 a.m. on the weekend. Bress said he enjoys the responsibility of running the tournament every year because, as he puts it, “People think I’m quite the maestro.”

“I started this in a previous law firm where I worked with [Daniel] Hodes and [Michael] Pessin,” he said. “When I joined [this firm] in 1993 it was almost like a condition of employment that I bring the pool with me.”

HPK is one of many offices where school colors and even jerseys are making an appearance this week, and employees can be found catching up on games in the TV lounge or conference room. A total of 32 first-round games are scheduled between Thursday and Friday, and they run from just after noon until after midnight on the East Coast.

Offices that tend to bypass the madness don’t stop loyal fans from getting into the spirit. Bruce Lewis, a physician assistant at Total Urgent Care in Harford County, graduated from Morgan State University in 1991 and plans on streaming games onto his computer as much as he can at work.

Too bad he can’t get his co-workers to schedule around the tournament — the 15th-seeded Bears are scheduled to tip off against No. 2 West Virginia University at 12:15 p.m. Friday.

“I have to give a talk … around that time, but my TV’s going to be waiting for me, and my Morgan gear is going to be here,” he said.

Lawmakers not immune

Even lawmakers aren’t immune from March Madness fever. In Annapolis, the tournament is a welcome addition to the final weeks of the General Assembly’s 90-day session.

“In my estimation, it’s the greatest yearly sporting event in the country,” said Speaker of the House Michael E. Busch. “It’s a three-week endeavor, and people have a lot of excitement following it. It comes down to a true national championship.”

Lawmakers have been known to peek at streaming Web casts of the games on their laptops, and when the championship game fell on the final day of session — otherwise known as a 12-hour scramble to wrap up last-minute business — staffers set up two televisions in the House lounge so delegates could keep up with the action.

“I think it’s a pleasant diversion that people can look up and follow some of the teams as they’re down here,” said Busch, a former Temple University football star and an avid Owls fan. “They all go to their committee hearings, they all do their jobs.”

Jaklitsch said that in prior years when the Maryland Terps have had a game during working hours, his firm had taken off to watch at a nearby watering hole called The Office, which has since changed its name.

“That way if … people say ‘Where were you?’ we can say we were at the office,” Jaklitsch said with a laugh.

This year, Maryland’s first-round game is scheduled for 9:40 Friday night, but researchers say alma maters don’t necessarily dictate the level of interest among tournament followers.

According to Chicago-based firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, this first week of the tournament could cost the nation’s employers a total of $1.8 billion in unproductive wages based on 20 minutes of wasted time per day.

But some don’t give a lot of weight to those measurements.

Like shopping online

“In my opinion it’s no different than our day-to-day distractions, like shopping online or checking your e-mail,” said Richard Clinch, director of economic research for the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. “How many people are checking their stocks two or three times a day or how many people [use Twitter]? The question is, is this any different?”

Tim Watkins, president and CEO of the Hunt Valley production company Renegade, said his employees will take their work and laptops into the conference room to watch games on the television or stream games onto their computers. But he doesn’t see the tournament as a distraction.

“It’s something to rally around,” he said. “I’m really blessed my gang gets its work done and then some. If someone is watching a ball game and they fall behind a bit, they’ll catch up at the end of the day.”

John Maroon, head of Marriottsville-based Maroon PR, which has a sports division, goes even further.

“If we didn’t [have games on] it would be a morale killer,” he said. “They’re going to watch it, so you either have some fun with it or you have them skulk around and sneak it in.”

And March Madness doesn’t have to be just a fun distraction — it can be a moneymaker to those who are able to take advantage.

Watkins said his company has designed promotions inspired by NCAA brackets for its cable clients, including Comcast Cable. Standard Auto Parts, which has five locations in the Baltimore area, is bringing back a bracket-inspired promotion for its wholesale customers after a successful first year.

Customers who submit an order to the retailer fill in that order number on a bracket slot based on the order’s dollar value — orders for $25 or more go in the first-round bracket slots and count for one drawing entry, orders for $50 or more go in the second-round slots and count for two entries, and so on. Before the Final Four, the retailer holds a drawing for a flat-screen television. The more entries a contestant has, the higher his chance is to win.

Roughly 60 shops participated in the contest last year; half exceeded their order totals from the prior March and outpaced their average order value, said Stan Goldman, Standard Auto Parts’ sales manager. For five accounts, last March was their highest monthly total in more than a year.

“Obviously the more you purchase from us the more chances you have to win,” Goldman said. “The excitement it generates and a lot of conversations and phone calls, it was definitely a favorable campaign for us. … People are already filling out their brackets.”

Meanwhile, Canton-based Internet firm WebConnection uses the tournament to stay visible for its clients. This year is the eighth the company has run its own NCAA bracket challenge, in which hundreds participate and compete against picks made by WebConnection’s executives.

“We’ve been in business for 15 years … and in our business if we do our job well our client may not need to reach out to us for a few years,” said Michael Rosenfeld, the managing director. “This lets people know you’re out there.”

Daily Record business writer Nicholas Sohr contributed to this article.