United States: How Can Employers Compete With This Sporting Trifecta? The Super Bowl, Olympics, And March Madness Approach

Beginning with the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018, Americans can enjoy three doses of the thrill of victory (and the agony of defeat) over the course of two months. Opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, take place on February 9, and the games will run through February 25. And just a few short weeks later, March Madness kicks in on March 13, with the championship game scheduled for April 2.

These events are always hugely popular and well-televised. Every Olympic event, for example, will be available on TV and/or by live stream. Some of these competitions will air outside work hours, including the Super Bowl and marquee Olympic or NCAA matches. Nonetheless, employers might want to think ahead about how to handle common workplace issues that can arise during these events. This article briefly highlights notable trends associated with these sports and pop culture phenomena: (1) gambling; (2) increased requests for time off; and (3) decreased productivity.

A Friendly Wager?

Many employees like to raise the stakes to make these sporting events more interesting, such as through a football squares pool or a basketball bracket challenge. Even workers who don't follow a particular sport can be roped into gambling on an event for the chance to win, to support a hometown or favorite school, or to share camaraderie with coworkers.

Some employers view voluntary wagers among workers as friendly competition or harmless fun. That being said, office betting pools can be unlawful. Depending on the scope of the pool and the amount of money involved, workplace gambling can draw the attention of law enforcement. The risks may increase if workers organize a wager that spans offices across state lines, runs online, or is coordinated by e-mail, as these behaviors may violate federal law in addition to any state laws prohibiting gambling.1

As a result, employers are often uncomfortable with gambling at work. Some turn a blind eye to activities that take place during non-work time, while others choose to address the issue directly. To help minimize potential exposure, employers should make clear what is, and what is not, permitted in the workplace. If an employer operates in a state that does not allow legal wagers (the vast majority), it should consider notifying staff about that ban—and any related company policies that touch on gambling. Additionally, employees should be informed if they may be disciplined for participating in any betting.2 Employers might also remind staff of their internal complaint reporting procedures.

Employers that permit workplace wagers should not endorse or encourage any gambling but should stay alert. For example, management or supervisory staff should intervene if they become aware of a high buy-in for a pool or if the organizer intends to keep a cut for his or her efforts. Supervisors could also keep an eye out for any harassing or bullying behaviors, such as the obvious exclusion of an individual from the pool or inordinate trash-talking about team loyalties that might cross a line. Even if this type of conduct does not violate any laws, it might conflict with an employer's workplace code of conduct. At the very least, it can detract from the fun of the event and negatively affect morale. To head off some of these issues, employers might insist that participation in the office pool is voluntary and free.

Employers should also be aware of employee online gambling habits or addictions. Supervisors and co-workers might be in the best position to notice any such conduct. In that event, supervisors should be prepared to address any work deficiencies or violations of company policy associated with online (or other excessive) gambling. Employers might consider posting or distributing resources about problem gambling if allowing office pools or bracket games.3

The Super Bowl Hangover, Olympics Fever, and March Madness . . . All Highly Contagious!

As we head into this season of sporting extravaganzas, employers can anticipate an increase in the number of employees who request time off or simply call out at the last minute. This pattern is particularly noticeable the morning after the Super Bowl4 and during the initial rounds of the basketball tournament, as many fans block out time to travel to game sites or gather for all-day viewing parties.

Depending on an office's location (e.g., Philadelphia, New England, etc.) and staff interests, it might make sense for an employer to bring up this issue in advance of any event likely to result in absences—whether it's football, hockey, or college basketball. Employers that foresee a scheduling problem in light of operational needs, for example, should reiterate absence and vacation/PTO policies, including any mandatory notice procedures. Employers should decide how strictly policies will be enforced, including how they will handle multiple or last-minute requests. Employers may wish to disclose to employees any plan for moderating requests (e.g., based on when the request is submitted or by seniority) and might also consider how they will treat suspicious absences.

As with any privilege, if employers will grant time off to some employees but not others, employers will want to guard against claims of discrimination or favoritism. All requests should be evaluated fairly, consistent with the employer's policies and normal practices, which could be supplemented by a reward system or lottery system if requests become overwhelming.

Ratings Go Up, Productivity Goes Down

Of course, even though most employees will continue to work around these events, productivity presumably could suffer.5 According to one 2016 estimate, for example, employers could lose up to $4 billion worth of effort in the first week of March Madness due to employees distracted by the tournament and their brackets.6

Employees who work on computers and/or have ready access to their phones appear most likely to have their attention diverted by Olympic or NCAA action. Moreover, employees live-streaming sports online can drag down the efficiency of their coworkers by taxing an organization's technology infrastructure. This misuse of company property could also unintentionally lead to security threats.7 Employers should encourage staff to become familiar with their internet usage policy and should decide beforehand how that policy will be enforced. If the employer intends to monitor employee internet usage or restrict access to certain sites, it might consider informing employees prior to any event to encourage compliance and avoid unnecessary drama.8

On the whole, employers may want to prepare front-line supervisors for the possible decrease in productivity and the related issues discussed earlier. Some flexibility may be entirely appropriate, depending on the work environment, but supervisors may need to redirect employees found binge-watching sports or disturbing other employees.

Some employers decide to embrace the spirit of these popular events, at least to the extent that business permits. Sports have a way of bringing many people together, and the shared experience of following the Olympics or March Madness can build rapport among employees who may not normally have a chance to interact. To that end, employers might host viewing parties, show TV coverage in the break room, or post scores or brackets in a central location. Taking such steps can boost morale immediately and enhance teamwork overall. Giving employees a viewing outlet—or even a long break to watch a particular contest—also may help them focus on work while at their stations, knowing that they will be plugged in to the festivities again soon enough.

In sum, employers should take some time now to formulate a game plan as appropriate for their workforce. With some forethought, employers can maintain productivity even as employees soak up these exciting events.

Oh, and one more heads-up: the FIFA World Cup starts in June.


1 Notably, the legality of a 1992 federal law banning states from allowing sports gambling is being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court this term in New Jersey Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association, Inc. v. National Collegiate Athletic Association.

2 See Roger Grandgenett & Sandy Ketner, Gambling in the Workplace is Anything But a Safe Bet, Littler ASAP (Feb. 1, 2016).

3 The National Council on Problem Gambling has such resources and maintains hotline and text services.

4 See, e.g., Workforce Institute @Kronos, Super Bowl Workplace Impact (Feb. 3, 2016) (reporting January 2016 survey results, which revealed that up to 10% of U.S. workers may miss work the day after the game).

5 See, e.g., Workforce Institute @Kronos, Torching Productivity: 2016 Olympics vs. Work (Aug. 4, 2016) (reporting July 2016 survey results, which discussed how much time American workers would spend watching the summer Olympics the following month). According to the survey, one-third of respondents stated that they would stream an event live while at work.

6 Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., Employers Brace for March Madness (Mar. 8, 2016).

7 See, e.g., Herb Weisbaum, NBC News, We Know You'll Be Watching the Olympics at Work, So Here's How to Do it Safely (Aug. 3, 2016).

8 See, e.g., Michael Mankes, Copa Mundial: World Cup and the Workplace, Littler Insight (June 7, 2010).

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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