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Expanded coverage of this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament could cost employers a lot of time and money.

Online viewership of the three-week tournament during work hours is estimated to reach at least 8.4 million hours during this year’s tournament, according to a study by Chicago-based Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

The numbers are based on 2010 traffic statistics from CBSSports.com. Last year, the online streaming video of the tournament attracted 8.3 million unique visitors who watched a total of 11.7 million hours of online video and audio, a 36 percent jump from the previous year.

This year, CBSSports.com is expanding its reach with free mobile apps for smart phones and tablets, a move that Challenger estimates will increase streaming by 20 percent to 14 million total hours.

According to CBSSports.com, nearly 75 percent of the total amount of viewership occurred during the first four days of the tournament. Approximately 80 percent of the four-day total was achieved in the first two days. This year, however, the tournament expanded the field from 64 to 68 teams, which means four additional games will be played Tuesday and Wednesday, March 15 and 16 to determine the 64-team bracket that begins on Thursday March 17.

“These additional games will probably not add to the lost productivity due to the fact that they will be played in primetime, when most people are back at home in front of their televisions,” John A. Challenger, CEO of the company, said in a statement.

Challenger said that although 8.4 million hours of lost productivity seems like it would deliver a crushing blow to the economy, there are roughly 108.3 million people on private payrolls that each work 34.2 hours per week, according to the latest Labor Department data. So, the total number of hours from the American workforce in one week comes to about 3.7 billion hours.

“The 8.4 million hours lost to March Madness is a relative drop in the bucket, accounting for less than one-tenth of one percent of the total hours American workers will put in over the three weeks of the tournament,” he said.

Last year Challenger estimated that lost productivity during March Madness would cost employers $1.8 billion in lost wages paid to unproductive workers, but this year he made no such prediction. “We simply did not have enough information to support what is already a very rough estimate,” he said. “What is more important is how individual companies address the issue among their employees.”

In an effort to keep employees focused and bandwidth unencumbered,  Challenger said some companies have blocked access to streaming content of all types, while others have cracked down on March Madness gambling pools. Another possible solution? 

“Rather than try to squash employee interest in March Madness, companies should embrace it as a way to build morale and camaraderie,” he said. “This could mean putting televisions in the break rooms, so employees have somewhere to watch the games, other than the internet. Employees might consider a company-wide pool, which should have no entry fee in order to avoid ethical and/or legal questions.”


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