By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 16, 2006
The NCAA men's basketball tournament begins today, and for the first time, every game of the 19-day ritual known as March Madness will be available live -- and free -- over the Internet. The decision makers at Washington's Corporate Executive Board, for one, saw this as a potential recipe for disaster.
With visions of their 1,400 employees glued to their computer screens tuning in to see their favorite teams, the company, which sells management research to firms, has decided to disable access to Web broadcasts of the games. The reason, company officials said, is that this would avoid straining the corporate computer system. It also will keep their workers, well, working.
"When we started to look at it, once you get past the bandwidth issue it's also a business focus issue," said Derek van Bever, the company's chief research officer. "Is there any good reason to run this risk? And the answer is no."
Studies show that productivity wanes every year during the tournament. But 2006 stands to be the biggest hit ever to the workplace thanks to the decision by CBS SportsLine.com, whose parent company, CBS, holds the national broadcast rights to the 65-team tournament, to stream the games online at no cost to viewers.
One Washington area employee with a major defense contractor said the company also was making a preemptive strike by disabling computer access to CBS SportsLine.com. "In our case, we specifically blocked in an automated fashion the part of the site that was the portal to March Madness on demand, preventing us from getting to the CBS SportsLine site," said the employee, who requested that his name and the name of his company not be disclosed because he is not authorized to speak to reporters.
The federal government has 1.8 million civilian employees, raising the prospect of the government's business slowing to a crawl -- or its computer systems doing so -- if workers click to the Webcasts from their cubicles. Michael Orenstein, a spokesman for the Office of Personnel Management, which oversees federal workplace matters, said each agency sets its own policy on personal Internet use at work.
Howard Tipton, a spokesman for the Department of the Interior, said the department permits its 77,000 employees to have "limited use" of the Internet, so long as it doesn't interfere with their jobs. Only in rare instances -- often because of a disability or other special need -- are employees allowed to view streaming video, he said.
"We're not misers to the point that if somebody runs on there to check the score to see how the Orangemen are doing that anybody would be fired over it," Tipton said. "But we would have a problem if everybody tuned in and did downstreaming video, just from the bandwidth consumption and the cost to taxpayers."
While it's impossible to say how many companies are blocking Web access to the tournament, there is a growing recognition that technology is allowing March Madness to creep further into the workplace.
"It's a phenomenon that businesses have to live with forever now," said Raul Fernandez, co-owner of the Washington Capitals and chairman of ObjectVideo, a security video software company that employs 85 at its headquarters in Reston. "We are living in a world where it's not just the NCAA, but you can watch 'Desperate Housewives' or other games remotely through the Internet. For me, it falls into the category under trusting the employees to get their work done."
"We have a workforce that is Web savvy and knows how to get to what they want to get to, and we don't stop them," said John Buckley, executive vice president for corporate communications at Dulles-based America Online Inc. "We have a big belief that people will use the Web appropriately over the course of the day and get their jobs done."
Some companies recognize that basketball fans will be interested in the games. They just ask that employees follow the action responsibly.
"If my guys who work for me want to get a sandwich and sit at their desk during their lunch break and watch a game, fine," said Tom Jurkowsky, a spokesman for Bethesda-based defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. "However, if some guys are watching a game and screaming and shouting or doing it [when they're supposed to be working], it's up to the manager to take appropriate action. Our policy with respect to this type of thing is common sense."
Nitin Gupta, an analyst for Yankee Group, which evaluates the media and entertainment industry for clients, expects companies to further tighten Internet policies as Web advances allow workers greater access than ever to live sports events, television shows and films. "Maybe companies will start thinking about new policies," he said. "Some workplaces have pretty strict policies about what you can watch on screen."
Alex Riethmiller, a spokesman for CBS SportsLine.com, declined to voice an opinion about the efforts by some companies to limit access over the Web. "We're expecting to serve millions of fans over the course of the tournament," he said.
But CBS SportsLine will offer one escape hatch for workers whose bosses might frown on them spending too much time watching the games. Riethmiller said the Web site will display a "boss button" in addition to the action on the court. Click on it, he said, and the sound will shut off and the screen will switch from basketball to a spreadsheet.
"The 2006 March Madness just might be remembered for the 'boss button' that gives workers a way to quickly hide their basketball indiscretions," said John Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based outplacement company that estimated the tournament will cost the economy more than $3.8 billion in lost productivity.
Staff writer Christopher Lee contributed to this report.