Feature Archive

March Madness = Workplace Wagering

Sink or swim, chances are you're betting in the office pool. Why does the NCAA tournament bring out the gambler in us like nothing else?

By Sid Kirchheimer
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

With soccer's World Cup, there are stadium riots. With football's Super Bowl, a record-breaking television audience. But nothing brings out the gambler in us more than basketball's March Madness.

This month, online casinos will take in $1.6 billion in bets on the NCAA tournament. An additional $80 million in college basketball wagers will be made in Nevada, where sports betting is legal. Yet the bulk of the $3.5 billion that the FBI estimates will be gambled is in millions of office pools across the country tracking the progress of the 65 participating teams.

Those $5 bets translate into more than just a slightly thicker wallet and bigger ego for winning cubicle dwellers. There is the time, usually on the company clock, to complete the brackets. Time to Google the latest scores. Those emails and water cooler predictions and recollections of blind-sided upsets.

All told, it amounts to an estimated $1.5 billion in lost productivity in American workplaces during the two-week tournament, according to business outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

That's $100 million a day, based on a formula that the typical employee takes just 10 minutes daily to track the games. "And that's calculated only on productivity lost by college-degreed office workers tracking the games -- it could very well be much higher," company CEO John Challenger tells WebMD. "It really has become the quintessential workplace sporting event, easily outpacing the World Series and Super Bowl."

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"With other sports gambling, it's pretty much done one-on-one -- you bet with a bookie or you bet with a friend, and you're usually betting on a single event or one day's games," says Kevin Matthews, of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. "What the NCAA tournament offers is a social construct in which people are betting on a particular series of events, and as a result, they bet en masse."

Part of it is because of those easy-to-complete, visually appealing bracket matchups, available in most newspaper sports pages and a gazillion web sites. Part may be the fact that it's vertically-blessed students -- and not millionaire professional athletes -- giving it that ol' college try in their own hoop dreams. But there's also human nature to consider.

At some workplaces, pool rules are dictated by the office alpha male, and winner takes all; at others, rules are handled by committee, with a portion of the pool devoted to a department pizza party. But one thing remains constant: Playing well -- and better yet, winning -- translates to office bragging rights and subtle status attainable by anyone, from the mailroom to the boardroom.

"Unlike other sporting events, with the NCAA tournament, you're making one bet on a very large series of games," Matthews tells WebMD. "To win a bracket, you have to have near-perfect predictions, so it's more challenging -- and that's part of the appeal of these office pools."

That challenge doesn't exist in other betting pools. "With Super Bowl pools, there are often a series of boxes with different scores. If you happen to be lucky enough to pick the right combination, you win," says Richard Kopelman, DBA, professor of management at Zicklin School of Business of Baruch College, who has researched the behavior of gamblers. "But NCAA office pools are more like horse racing, where people try to handicap the teams, game-by-game. There is more skill involved."

There's also the timing of the tournament, a March maddening round-the-clock schedule of hardwood action.

"With other sports, you have to wait a week, or at least several days, in between games. But this tournament is a soap opera, and you keep watching it night after night," says Matthews. "The fact that it continues every day and night, and it's talked about the following day at work, really hooks people."

That's because whether or not they even like basketball, they usually have allegiances -- and therefore, an interest in the game results.

"When you're talking about 65 teams, you're talking about a lot of alumni, so there's that connection," says Matthews. "There are also regional alliances. Even if you didn't go to UConn, if you live in Hartford, you'll naturally align with that school ... unless, of course, you went to the University of Kentucky."

As Kopelman can attest, it's not out of the realm to root for the team that beat yours. "I'm a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, so I'm hoping that Princeton does well -- since they beat Penn to make it to the tourney," he tells WebMD. "Even if your school isn't playing, there are others playing from your school's league. And I'm rooting for the Ivy League."

A Compulsion for Some

But March Madness provides yet another lure for the 3% of Americans who are compulsive gamblers. "Something like 90% of Americans bet at least once a year, and for many of them, this is the one time of year they bet," says psychologist Nancy Petry, PhD, director of the Gambling Treatment Program at the University of Connecticut Health Center. "For most people, office pools aren't a problem. But for the minority with gambling problems, this time of year can be particularly vulnerable for them. Even if it's just $1, one bet can lead to the next bet."

In past years, she says calls to her program's toll-free counseling line noticeably increase during March Madness, along with the Super Bowl. "Some people call up, frighteningly suicidal with thoughts that if I don't win this (pool), it's over," she tells WebMD.

Still, the Society for Human Resource Management reports that the majority of 9,800 companies surveyed in 2002 say they don't worry about whether betting pools are happening at their workplace. In fact, 30% of responding employers admit to running an in-house NCAA tournament pool -- the same percentage that say their organizations don't allow betting.

As long as all the money is paid out -- and no one gets a "cut" -- these office pools are generally not illegal.

In fact, they could be beneficial to the workplace, says Kopelman.

"It makes going to work more fun," he tells WebMD. "People can't work straight through the day, so if they're not taking a break to check game scores, they're probably going to eBay or Expedia on company time. The difference is with the NCAA office pools, they have something to share with their co-workers."

Published March 17, 2004.