(March) Madness at work

In 1939, when the NCAA basketball tournament began with only eight teams, who would have guessed the event would grow to its current scale? And nowhere is the scale of the NCAA basketball tournament more evident than in the workplace.

The FBI estimates that more than $2.5 billion will be wagered this year on March Madness, and only 3% of the bets will be placed through legal betting establishments. The vast majority of NCAA tournament betting occurs informally, including the ever-popular office pools and brackets. Technically, workplace gambling is illegal. In recent years, employees have been arrested for skimming office pools, and employees have been fired when their NCAA workplace betting surpassed five figures. From a practical standpoint — absent skimming, huge dollar amounts or other criminal acts — the Feds are not going to raid your workplace and haul off employees for participating in an NCAA tournament pool.

Particularly during the early rounds when games are played during the day, March Madness can be a distraction for employees from work. That distraction has been magnified with the ability to access unlimited information and live streaming of the tournament. So what’s an employer to do?

It’s not realistic to ban NCAA tournament betting or to try to keep employees from tracking what is going on in games. Your energy is better spent on controlling its impact and devising a way to harness March Madness for a good outcome. As a starting point, make sure your employees understand they are expected to use good judgment when following the tournament at work. It can never get to the level where it interferes with operations or responsibilities.

Use the event to foster camaraderie and morale. Set up televisions (and perhaps snacks) in non-work areas tuned to tournament coverage. These become gathering places and may decrease employees slowing workplace internet speed due to individual viewing at their own desks. Put together a department or company-wide pool with no entry fee or a nominal entry fee. Publish the results after each round. I realize there are potential problems and abuses an employer must watch out for, but more and more companies are finding the positives greatly outweigh the negatives with this approach.

Now the important part — foolproof tips (in no particular order) on how you can win your March Madness pool:

  • In the long run, favored teams win (more so in later rounds).
  • Coaches make a difference. Experienced coaching staffs rise to the top.
  • Look at strength of schedule ratings — one of the best indicators for success, and it neutralizes the endless debates on which conferences are the strongest.
  • Defense, defense, defense. It’s all about who plays the toughest man-to-man defense (sorry Syracuse).

And lastly: Go Buckeyes.