March madness and productivity

Date posted: May 1, 2013

Many people were glued to their TVs, smartphones and other electronic devices during the NCAA basketball tournament, and they didn’t always only watch at home. They often followed the games at work. Could this have reduced worker productivity and impacted the entire output of our economy? N.C. State University economist Mike Walden responds.

“Well … this is a question that comes up every year around this time, and one reason is the NCAA tournament is very long – several weeks – whereas other major sporting events are shorter.

“And so actually economists have studied this question, and they have tried to estimate the amount of work lost by people watching the tournament rather than working, and the estimates vary. They vary widely, from about a work loss of $175 million a year to nearly $1 billion a year.

“Now I should put this in comparison.  Our total economy has an aggregate output of $16 trillion. So, even at the high end, it wouldn’t be that much.

“But I think the range here indicates that economists really don’t know or that there can be pluses or minuses to this, and I think there can be obviously on the minus side of people watching the tournament, they don’t work. That means they’re not working. They may make more mistakes. They may be distracted. Some of them may simply not show up from work. So, those are the minuses.

“But on the plus side, you can argue that if you’re watching the tournament, you’re getting excited. Maybe that’s going to increase your morale. Maybe it’s going to give you an opportunity to bond with your colleagues. Maybe the down time in watching the tournament, even during work, recharged your batteries, so when you go back to work you’re actually working faster and harder. Or it just simply makes work more enjoyable.

“I think the conclusion here … is this is not a big deal. I think companies expect their workers to perhaps lose a little time watching the tournament, and companies cope with it.”

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