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Webcasts put March Madness in new bracket

As the NCAA men's basketball tournament moves into its second week, those first quarter reports will be no match for the Duke Blue Devils. More than a few client meetings will be rescheduled as the Gonzaga Bulldogs take the court in their Sweet 16 match-up.

And pity the poor office pool manager, forced to shoulder the responsibilities of a 9-to-5 job while updating bracket standings, posting results and guarding the cash.

The American workplace has a bad case of March Madness and things just won't be the same until a national college basketball champion is crowned on April 3.

The NCAA tournament has long spawned office pools and kept the company copy machine working overtime to print out bracket sheets and result updates. Even the most un-sporty staffers are annually spotted trolling sports web sites while on the clock, seeking that one bit of knowledge that will get them a winning pick.

But this year there's a new twist that is sapping productivity in a whole new way. CBS Corp. is making the first three rounds of games available for free, online viewing via its sportsline.com web site.

Outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas predicts that by the time the final buzzer sounds, U.S. businesses will have lost $3.8 billion to March Madness. For every 13.5 minutes fans in the office spend watching the games on Internet, employers will lose some $237 million in wages.

"Those live feeds will make is so simple for people to just turn on the games and leave it up on their computer," said Chief Executive John A. Challenger.

And in most offices, there's nothing but a guilty conscience to prevent workers from doing just that. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, most businesses allow their employees to surf the Net while at work, and fewer than 20 percent have a policy that bars in-office gambling on sports events.

Despite his grave predictions of lost productivity, even Challenger's firm has an office pool.

"If you can't beat 'em, you might as well join 'em," said Challenger, noting that all the staff interaction that comes with March Madness builds camaraderie and boosts morale, which could pay post-tourney dividends.

But some workplaces, particularly government agencies and related companies, aren't taking any chances that college basketball will bring the pace of work to a crawl. Bosses at the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Executive Board, which sells management research to firms, made a preemptive strike by disabling the access to the CBS web casts.

Another Washington area defense contractor also confirmed it blocked its workers ability to log onto the live streaming game video.

A Buffalo bank vice president, who requested anonymity, admitted he spent "more than a few minutes" viewing games on his office PC last week and doesn't mind if his workers do the same.

"We're all adults here and I trust they'll find a way to get their work done even if they are watching a little basketball," he said. "It's not a lot different than at holiday time when people do some of their gift buying online during work hours."

In addition, to CBS' sportsline.com, other popular web sites offering NCAA action and information are espn.com and aol.com.

e-mail: slinstedt@buffnews.com

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