Why holding an NCAA Tournament office pool is more important than ever

Josh Peter, USA TODAY
·4 min read

A company in Chicago estimates March Madness will cost U.S. businesses more than $13 billion in lost productivity because employees will be watching the basketball games instead of working.

And that company — Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., which helps people with job searches and career transitioning and produces economic research — will happily absorb its share of the financial losses.

A year after COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the 2020 men's and women's tournaments, Challenger, Gray & Christmas have encouraged their more than 400 employees to fill out brackets and get involved.

“Employers should use this positive, shared experience to build much-needed morale for their workers," said Andrew Challenger, workplace expert and senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. “Most work teams are battling burnout right now, and a break from the pressure in the form of the tournament may help ease that burden."

Filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket has become a tradition in many offices.
Filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket has become a tradition in many offices.

Like firms across America, the headquarters for Challenger, Gray & Christmas remain virtually empty because of COVID-19 and social distancing. But with March Madness beginning in earnest Friday, Challenger, Gray & Christmas will be among the companies whose annual office pool commence with a twist.

It will take place entirely online.

Filling out the brackets at ESPN, CBS and, yes, USA TODAY, has ended the need for paper brackets for many years now.

But many employees in office settings still gather to watch the games unfold and share their bracket misery. That will largely not be possible this year, and Challenger said he's not sure how people will find the same sense of camaraderie while watching the games from home.

“I think it’s important that companies are participating this year,’’ Challenger said. “People need something. They need a way to connect.’’

Talent Resources/Talent Resources Sports in New York, with about 25 employees, is holding a remote office pool. Others doing the same include Meticulous Design + Architecture, a minority-owned business in Indianapolis, and BlueIvy Communications in Delray Beach, Fla.

A handful of other companies confirmed they holding remote office pools did not want to acknowledge it publicly.

Bracket tips? At your service:

Also in the mix: The West Side Bible Church in Chicago is holding a remote pool (without any wagering) because the congregants are not yet meeting in person for services.

“Employers should use this positive, shared experience to build much-needed morale for their workers,’’ Challenger said.

But financial cutbacks stemming from COVID-19 squashed the March Madness office pool at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, said president and CEO John Doleva.

During the pandemic, the staff has been reduced to 17 from 24 and the workload made it too difficult to operate the office pool, according to Doleva.

“Hardly anybody noticed, to be honest,’’ Doleva said. “There was an email sent out and people just figured it was another victim of COVID and you just move on.

“But I’m sure if there are people in my office and other offices that want to find a pool, they could find them.’’

Signups for brackets on ESPN's website is on a pace commensurate with the past few years, said Kevin Ota, Director of Communications at ESPN.

The American Gaming Association projects almost 37 million Americans will fill out a bracket, down 8% from 2019. This will come as no great surprise to Michael Serazio, an associate professor at Boston College and author of the book, “The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture.’’

Serazio said March Madness may be more important than any other sporting event when it comes to “its community-serving purpose.”

“Because it really does get people interested in sports who, I think, often have no interest in them otherwise,’’ Serazio said. “And it’s simply social inertia that propels them into the kind of communal experience.’’

But Serazio said he thinks the experience will lack the same power without offices buzzing with chatter and people gathering to watch upsets and buzzer beaters.

“The outcome of the bracket ultimately means nothing, but it means everything if it helps perpetuate a sense of community and it helps give people something to talk about,’’ he said. “I mean, that’s the central challenge of our time, is finding common forms of conversation and civil ways and even playful ways (of interacting), which is what the March Madness brackets in the office enable."

"The absence of offices this year, which has created its own sense of loneliness and detriment to community, I think will also impair that ritual from taking place and the benefits from it.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NCAA Tournament: Why holding an office pool is more important