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Fantasy Football: Bane or Boon of the Workplace?

We all know about the positive ways in which the business world has embraced fantasy football. Countless leagues are thriving in offices throughout the country; major media and Internet players, such as CBS, ESPN, and Yahoo market a vast array of services to fantasy football enthusiasts; and countless independent operators (ranging from league-hosting services such as to information sources such as our very own have sprung up alongside the giants.

However, there is growing concern in corporate America that fantasy football is a cancer in the workplace. According to some estimates, the cost of fantasy football to American businesses exceeds the very considerable revenue generated by the hobby. One of the most widely cited estimates comes from the firm of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, Inc., whose CEO speculates that fantasy football costs the nation’s employers $36,000,000 in lost productivity. John A. Challenger points out that lost time isn’t only a product of workers surfing fantasy sites for the latest updates concerning their players, but of office socialization: “If it is not the Internet, it could be 10 minutes of chatting around the watercooler with other league aficionados. For every 10 minutes an employee chats at the watercooler about the tournament, the company is basically paying for unproductive worktime.”

Variously termed “cyberslacking” or “cyberloafing” by workplace efficiency experts, the unauthorized use of Internet access by employees at work supposedly costs companies $50,000,000,000 or more in lost productivity each year. I’m no efficiency expert, so I have no idea how that number was arrived at. I dare to suggest, however, that if all employees throughout the world with Internet access stopped cyberslacking from August 1, 2005 through August 1, 2006, it would be insane for us to expect fifty billion dollars in goods and services simply to manifest themselves as a direct result.

Cyberslacking happens, I suppose, because it can. If you have to hire a company such as Stellar Internet Monitoring to find out which of your employees are tinkering with their fantasy football lineups on company time, that is probably because the ones who are spending time on fantasy football at work are getting their work done just as efficiently as (perhaps even more efficiently than) those who aren’t.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management, wagering on football is the most common form of gambling in the workplace. Throw in workplace fantasy leagues in which only bragging rights (and no entry fees) are at stake, and presumably the NFL becomes an even bigger drain on company time in the estimate of some. But as Lori Kozlowski points out, “In some organizations even bosses join in the pools, citing company morale as a reason for excusing the action.”

I can’t help thinking of the brilliant scene in Office Space in which our hero Peter Gibbon (Ron Livingston) recounts an ordinary workday for “the two Bobs,” who are workplace efficiency experts trying to cut labor costs in his office. Gibbon begins by confessing, “I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late. . . . [A]fter that I sorta space out for an hour.” When asked by one of the Bobs what he means by “space out,” he says, “Yeah, I just stare at my desk, but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too, I'd say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.”

I’m sure that circumstances vary from person to person and from office to office, but I can’t help thinking that when companies ban access to sporting sites to keep their employees productive, the employees respond by going to other kinds of sites. When all the “fun” sites are banned, the employees fill the gaps in their workday by playing Tetris or using Excel to create the most extraordinarily balanced checkbook of all time. If companies take away every opportunity for the computer to be used as a source of amusement, then I’m willing to bet that most employees will respond the way Gibbon did, by “spacing out” for a while—daydreaming or perhaps even catnapping if they can get away with it.

I’ve had a representative sampling of jobs in the course of my life—from flipping burgers as a teen to working at a utility company and a law office in college to teaching at a number of different colleges and universities as an adult. No matter where I’ve worked, I’ve found that there were times when all the employees had to pull together and focus to meet certain exigencies of the marketplace in which we found ourselves. But I’ve also found that there were slack times, times when the manager at Whataburger would invent things for me to do or the lawyer I worked for would give me papers to sift through just because he didn’t want to send me home early or, most recently, when I have finished my reading and my grading and am sitting in my office during office hours waiting for students who might want to drop by to discuss their papers or the latest reading assignments. Quite often, no students drop by. I’m not sure how any productivity is lost when I take advantage of such lulls in the workday to check the standings in my fantasy league, but I’m sure there’s a workplace efficiency expert out there somewhere who would be happy to set me straight on that one.

Look, I’ll even turn the tables. I’ll talk about a college student who disregarded the lectures of a professor to work on his fantasy draft strategy during class (though he pretended to be taking notes on his computer). I know about this not because he was a student in my class, but because he is a rival in my fantasy league. The strategy he developed was pointless because it was predicated on different people making specific choices—and the whole thing fell apart when one of our league buddies rocked the world of the draft last season by taking Randy Moss with the second overall pick. In other words, the time he “stole” from his accounting class to work on his draft predictions turned out to be a complete waste on draft day. But since he managed to get an A in the class by studying the text instead of listening to the professor, I can’t see why the professor in question would care.

Moreover, I don’t think we go far enough if we merely concede that the instances in which fantasy football has a negative impact on the workplace are few and far between. I think we can say that fantasy football leagues can be (and quite routinely are) beneficial to the workplaces in which they thrive. I contend that as a result of fantasy football, workers get to know each other better, learn each other’s thought processes better, and, as a result, do their jobs better. Think back to the boss invoked by Kozlowski who participates in football pools as a way of raising company morale. Now we’re talking “intangibles,” a wonderful NFL concept that translates beautifully to the workplace.

While preparing this column, I was contacted by one such boss as Kozlowski describes, a branch manager for a major insurance company who had this to say:
Fantasy Football can be a great boon for one's profession. With only limited time spent at work, this hobby improves valuation and negotiation skills. More and more it is a catalyst for ice-breaking when marketing. And it opens up networking channels that were previously untapped. It is simply a more efficient version of the same subject matter that business people have been discussing at the watercooler for decades.
I don’t expect a lot of feedback to my questions before the football season begins, but I hope to hear back from people who have experience managing other people (particularly in corporate America) on the subject of fantasy football in the workplace. Is it really the drain on productivity that some people make it out to be? Is it less a morale booster than I imagine it to be? If you are a worker without managerial experience, you may want to invite your supervisor to respond to it. But I wouldn’t pull it up on the screen at work. It might be safest to print out a copy at home!

For responses to this fantasy question please email Mike Davis.