Get real about fantasy football and productivity

Blazing headlines warning that American business will lose a billion or more dollars because of the college basketball playoffs have become a ritual of spring. Now such sports-related doom-saying is creeping into the fall. I just saw a headline that claimed fantasy football was going to cost American businesses US$435 million per week during the upcoming NFL season. The basic premise that this kind of money is actually lost is more than a bit wacko, and this should be clear to just about everyone, so why do these fantasy numbers get so widely reported?

Every spring for a number of years the news media has gone all a-twitter over the idea that the productivity of U.S. businesses will tank during the college basketball playoffs (called March Madness by sports reporters). Last year the cost was estimated to be $1.7 billion. In the same vein, big employee productivity losses were forecast due to distractions caused by the latest Super Bowl. Most recently came headlines on Fox Business news and elsewhere that employees playing fantasy football would waste hundreds of millions of their employers’ dollars every month. The Fox story quoted the source of most of these dubious statistics as saying, “The potential damage to morale and loyalty resulting from a fantasy football ban could be far worse than the loss of productivity caused by 10 minutes of online team management.” Oh, this sounds real bad — maybe businesses should band together to shut down American football in order to protect themselves from the inattention of their own employees.

Another big deal with March Madness, or so it was claimed, was the impact on the corporate data network of all those employees watching streaming video of the games that were played during business hours. Clearly the answer to that is to get the NCAA to stop playing games during the business day.

All of these estimates of risk to businesses seem to ultimately come from the same source: the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Putting out this sort of big-number impact prediction certainly has had what I assume was the desired result — lots of free press coverage of the firm so that employers might remember “the original outplacement company” (as its Web page puts it) when it comes time to do some outplacement. But anyone actually looking at the numbers has to admit that the conclusions drawn are speculative, at best.

In the latest salvo, Challenger came up with the $435 million/week figure based on a guess that the average player of fantasy football would spend 10 minutes per day of their at-work time on the game and an estimate that the average player is paid about $80K/year. Thus the number comes from making an assumption that these workers spend, on the average, exactly the proper amount of time at work and, if they were not working on fantasy football, they would be doing something productive.

The estimates go out the window if the employee does not spend just the proper amount of time at work or would go to the bathroom instead of doing something productive were it not for fantasy football.

All in all, these numbers are very silly indeed, but they do generate publicity for Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Sadly, they do so because too many people in the news media apply no critical review to what they are told and are in the business of reporting absurdities as news (you may have observed that this case is not the only time when this happens).

Disclaimer: There are a lot of absurdities in history and politics, and a lot of people at Harvard study history and politics but, as far as I know, the university has not commented on the level of reality in losses from fantasy, football or any other kind.

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