Hoop tourney means March Madness for IT

Online betting pools, streaming video of games sap productivity, corporate networks

With March Madness kicking off this week, corporate IT shops had better be prepared to handle the at-work computing madness that comes along with it.

Most of the NCAA men's basketball championship tournament's games are played during daytime work hours, and many office workers will be filling out online tournament brackets, wagering in online betting pools and watching streaming video of the games when their bosses' backs are turned.

The first week of the tournament alone could cost employers $1.8 billion in unproductive wages, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a global outplacement company in Chicago. And that's not counting the strain that workers' tournament-focused actions will put on a company's network.

"March Madness and the subsequent office pools have been going on long enough that employers can no longer claim to be caught off guard by the annual event," said John Challenger, CEO of the firm, which annually tries to predict the tournament's impact on workplace productivity. "Some have tried to quash these pools. Most simply ignore them, and others have found ways to embrace the tournament as a team-building and morale-boosting opportunity."

According to ScanSafe, a Web security company, traffic to popular college basketball Web sites like NCAA.com and CBSSports.com increases an average of 10,000% during March Madness. The company warned that even a few employees simultaneously watching streaming video of a game can dominate a network gateway.

"The amount of corporate bandwidth used to view these basketball games during work hours is shocking," said Spencer Parker, director of product management at ScanSafe, in a statement. "Most employers don't know the bandwidth impact of these streaming sessions and are unaware of any financial implications."

Parker added that IT administrators should be prepared to deal with the increased demand on their companies' networks for the next few weeks.

"IT professionals need to plan and be prepared for the extra bandwidth usage during this period," he said. "Having well-defined Internet usage policies, particularly pertaining to streaming video, can ease the bandwidth squeeze during March Madness."

According to Nielsen Web ratings data, 92% of fans who watched games online during the 2008 March Madness tournament did so from work computers.

And the stress on the company network isn't all surrounding streaming video.

Challenger estimates that 58.3 million U.S. workers will participate in office pools on the tournament this year. That's about 45% of people who work in an office. The company also estimated that workers participating in pools could waste an average of at least 20 minutes a day.

"Those who insist there will be no impact are kidding themselves," said Challenger. "It might be a slight drop in output or it could be slow Internet connections as bandwidth is sapped by employees watching streaming feeds of the games."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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