Fantasy Football: Morale Booster or Productivity Drain?

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 15, 2008
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Following the kickoff of the 2008 National Football League (NFL) season on Sept. 4, nearly 14 million workers likely are spending some company time huddling over their picks for their fantasy football leagues (FFLs).

That diversion could cost employers around the nation an estimated $10.5 billion in lost productivity during the 17-week NFL season, according to global outplacement agency Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

The Chicago-based organization is the same one that annually warns about lost productivity attributable to Super Bowl Sunday and “March Madness,” the annual NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

But despite the potential of lost productivity, an all-out ban on fantasy sports could backfire and hurt morale, suggests Challenger CEO John Challenger.

“Obviously, there are daily distractions in the workplace that are universal, whether it’s a trip to the washroom or sharing celebrity gossip around the water cooler. Fantasy football is just one more of these distractions,” he said in a press release.

This particular activity distracts approximately 13.6 million people, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, which also promotes fantasy baseball, basketball, golf and NASCAR racing.

Participants spend the bulk of their time—3.86 hours per week—at home playing and researching the game. In addition, they spend an average of 1 hour and 19 minutes per week online at work, according to a study by the Fantasy Sports Association (FSA) and Nielsen Online conducted in February and March 2007 with 504 fantasy sports players.

Fantasy Football Universe

Fantasy football involves compiling, prior to the NFL season, one or more teams using a draft system with other “team owners” in a league. Leagues can include up to 20 teams, according to ESPN.com’s web sitewhich includes prognostications, a free draft kit, a newsletter, message boards and free mobile alerts.

Participants pick current-day NFL players for their team and then manage it like a real owner over the course of the season as it competes against the teams of friends, co-workers and—thanks to the Internet—strangers.

It’s a statistics-driven game requiring research, and the FFL team owner accumulates points based on how team members perform each week. If a player is hurt in real life and is unable to play in a game, for example, a fantasy football team with that player suffers the same fate.

Case in point: Season-ending knee surgery will keep New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady out of play for the 2008 season. Having one of the top-five players in football on the injured reserve list likely prompted more than a few FFL players who had him on their teams to spend time agonizing over his replacement.

Those FFL players most likely are male and earn an average annual salary of nearly $80,000, the FSA/Nielson survey found. Assuming an average wage of $38 per hour, employers are paying $45.22 per worker each week during the season for time spent on fantasy football, Challenger estimated.

That comes to nearly $10.5 billion spent for unproductive time during the entire season, Challenger says, but he suggests employers go easy on these employees unless there is an obvious problem.

“In today’s 24-7 global economy, it is likely that work bleeds into our personal lives. As a trade-off, employers should expect and allow workers’ personal lives to seep into the workplace,” he observed.

“Managers should only crack down on those whose work is clearly suffering from the added distraction. An across-the-board ban on all fantasy football or sports web sites could backfire in the form of reduced morale and loyalty,” Challenger said, adding that “the result could be far worse than the loss of productivity caused by 10 to 20 minutes of team management each day.”

Workplace Pros and Cons

Challenger even suggests employers encourage fantasy football participation by organizing company leagues.

“In the long run, this may lead to increased employee retention,” he said.

There are issues for employers to consider, though.

Although participants will say fantasy football wins are more about bragging rights around the water cooler, leagues often throw money—such as a draft fee—into a pot at the beginning of the season. A portion then is doled out each week to the league member whose team performed the best.

Financial services companies such as banks and mutual funds firms “have to be extra cautious about betting games, as often they are illegal or contrary to the ethics guidelines all employees are required to sign,” noted Jodi R. R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting and author of two etiquette books.

At her last corporate employer in Massachusetts, “we had to fire nine employees for [participating in] a football pool. Betting, even fantasy when it involves real money, is illegal in this state. On top of that, as a global financial institution, the company had strict regulations and policies against such practices,” she told SHRM Online in an e-mail.

Time on the Internet

Also, much of the time devoted to fantasy football revolves around online research.

Web sites devoted to the multimillion-dollar industry proliferate across the Internet—

80 percent of FFL players follow the games and stats on the Internet—and fantasy football sites generated more than 2 billion page views and 11.7 million unique visitors in September 2007, the FSA/Nielsen Online survey found.

Yahoo Inc.’s site drew 5.4 million unique visitors in September 2007, and ESPN.comwas second with 3.3 million, according to Nielsen Online.

The draw of fantasy football is so big that Montana this year rolled out a FFL-based state lottery game—a game not authorized or approved by the NFL.

However, people who spend a large part of their day at work on fantasy football and similar pursuits are stealing time, says Zachary Hummel, an expert in labor and employment law and a law partner at Bryan Cave LLP in New York.

“Most employers have policies that [state that] use of their computer and electronic systems and Internet access are for work-related matters,” he told SHRM Online.

“I think most employers are not concerned with the five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes [spent online], but I do think they’re concerned about the three or four hours” on company time, he said.

The challenge for HR, he said, is to manage the workplace in a way that it does not become “a total police state” where employees can “never use the employer’s computer and Internet connections for anything [personal], yet maintaining a workplace that is somewhat productive. In order to do that, there has to be some sort of monitoring.”

He advises HR to:

  • Remind employees of the policy toward such activities. If personal Internet use is allowed, remind employees to keep use to a minimum and/or restrict it to break time; if it’s not allowed, remind them of this.
  • Pay attention to the calendar so reminder notices to employees about company policy coincide with seasonal activity.
  • Remind employees that what they do on the workplace computer system can be monitored. Keystrokes, for example, can be measured.
  • Consider ramifications of blocking access to Internet sites. The number of sites is vast, and there is the risk that blocking sites may impede legitimate work-related research.

“The challenge for HR is to anticipate some of these things and how to go after them proactively,” Hummel said.

Playing such games is “not necessarily a bad thing, but from the standpoint of lost time … it still needs to be managed,” he said.

Employers who encourage workplace leagues—and even set time aside for them—can expect to hear cries of “they got their 10 minutes” from other employees wanting equal time for their own pursuits.

Some employers, such as Virginia-based multimedia financial services company The Motley Fool, take a more sanguine view toward fantasy football at work.

“I am writing to you while I am doing my draft. Yes, that is completely true,” said Lee Burbage, senior vice president of The Motley Fool, to SHRM Online in a Sept. 3 e-mail.

“Two strong pieces of our culture are fun and community,” said Burbage, who thinks fantasy leagues supply both. His organization has several office leagues; participants are from a variety of departments and levels and include some former employees.

“When we have fun together, we succeed together,” he said. “As long as they produce at a high level and share the passion for our business, we trust them to balance their own time.”

Like Challenger, he thinks it’s “a mistake for companies to try and put up walls for employees.

“I try not to focus on rules and regulations that target what employees can’t do. Many HR departments are spinning their wheels on ‘don’t do this’ and ‘you can’t do that.’ We want to use our energy instead on what we can do to help our employees succeed,” he said.

“If other companies are focused on employees neglecting their jobs for fantasy football, then those companies should try to understand why the employee would neglect their job.”

For Electronic Arts, a California-based company that produces video games and runs a fantasy football service, “playing fantasy football is productivity for us,” said Jeremy Strauser, executive producer, in an e-mail. “It feels like a natural extension of our team culture to have an active fantasy football league.”

Its league encompasses 96 teams across six conferences and “is probably beyond the norm for most in its size and complexity,” he pointed out.

Stephen Hansen, who ran a league at work for about five years, says it can boost morale but acknowledges the potential for productivity loss.

“From a productivity standpoint, it definitely didn’t help,” he told SHRM Online in an

e-mail. “We would talk to each other about the league, trades and sports in general. We would check our teams at work on the Internet.”

That’s because although every other fantasy sport was blocked on the employer network, fantasy football was not. Two of his immediate bosses were among those who played.

“It was a great morale booster. It brought 14 people together, and we’re still close to this day,” he said, adding that the same people continue to play every year even though most have moved on to different jobs.

“It did make our jobs more enjoyable and made us better employees at the same time [when we weren’t playing fantasy football],” and while it’s hard to measure, “I have noticed that I work harder when I enjoy my environment and not as hard when I don’t. It definitely created a comfortable environment and brought me closer to my co-workers,” Hansen said.

Tots2Tweens business owner Dani Gurrie says fantasy football provides her small Maryland office of four women and one man “fun and healthy” interaction.

“As with anything, as long as it’s not abused,” she told SHRM Online in an e-mail, “it can be a great way to finish a week and a fun way to start the week.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kathy.gurchiek@shrm.org.

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