Live webcasts make it easier than ever to catch March Madness at the office

Taking college hoops to the Net

March 13, 2006|By CHILDS WALKER | CHILDS WALKER,SUN REPORTER

It happens every March.

It's early afternoon on a Thursday and one of the first batch of NCAA tournament games comes down to the final seconds.

A crowd gathers around the office's lone TV, hanging from the wall in the corner. More cautious souls crane their necks to watch the action from their desks.

Keyboards stop clicking. Phones ring unanswered. And college basketball has again halted the wheels of American commerce.

Bosses beware, because it's about to get worse. For the first time this year, CBS Sports will offer free, live Internet streams of all tournament games.

So, those sneaky hoops fans will no longer need excuses to sashay by the office television. They'll be able to watch constantly on their computer screens and hit a "boss button" to hide the evidence when authority comes prowling.

"I sort of think of it as three of America's greatest time wasters coming together," said Jeff Lanctot of Avenue A/Razorfish, a Seattle firm that steered Nike toward advertising on the webcasts. "Surfing the Internet at work, television and gambling. It's like a perfect storm of vice."

Workplace consultant Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. predicts the tournament will cost $3.8 billion in lost productivity this month. And that figure could be conservative with free games available online for the first time, said John Challenger, chief executive of the firm.

"I think we're in a new era with these live feeds," he said. "This is maybe one of the first big events where we'll get to see that in practice."

Most employers don't want to stomp on workers' interest in the tournament, said Mallary Tytel, who runs a Connecticut-based consulting firm called Healthy Workplace.

"If you can't lick 'em, join 'em," she said. "Most folks I know participate in some fashion."

That could mean posting pool brackets on the wall, leaving the games on television in common areas or organizing days on which employees wear team colors. She added that most employers accept their workers checking news online.

"As long as people are doing their jobs, they sort of take it in stride," she said.

The ACC tournament was on television Friday afternoon at the Towson advertising firm MGH. "We're watching it right now," said Executive Vice President Mike O'Brien with a chuckle.

He recounted how the Syracuse upset of No. 1 Connecticut the day before had sent a co-worker into hysterics. He's not worried about the new Internet broadcasts.

"If you trust that your employees aren't screwing around all the time, then, fine, let them watch it online," O'Brien said. "We're not going to worry about people finding time in their days to do something they enjoy."

Internet traffic rose significantly during last year's tournament. CBS SportsLine.com received almost 8 million visitors in March 2005, about 5 million more than the month before, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.

CBS officials and Internet experts predict that this year's tournament could be a turning point for online broadcasts.

"It's the first time something this big has been done live," said Steve Snyder, general manager for CBS SportsLine. "I think everybody will be watching to see, does this work and is it good for everybody involved."

Advertising space for the broadcasts sold out quickly, with Dell and Marriott signing on as chief sponsors.

Though major events such as last year's Live 8 concert have been shown on the Internet, the tournament seems a perfect fit. Games occur during the workday, when many people can't get to a television. And they overlap, leaving some viewers unable to see the action they prefer on local television.

To see the games, viewers will have to register at NCAASports.- com and will be unable to watch the game carried on television by the local CBS affiliate. The "boss button" will replace live game feeds with a stock spreadsheet.

Snyder said the "boss button" is the network's tongue-in-cheek response to concerns about lost productivity.

"We don't think it's going to fool any actual bosses," he said.

He added that CBS doesn't encourage workers to watch the games instead of doing their jobs.

"We don't expect people to sit at their desks and watch whole games," Snyder said. "If they want to do that, they should take the day off."

One technical downside: A lack of broadband capacity will limit viewership to a few hundred thousand at a time.

"If people want to make sure they'll be treated to the games faster, they should pre-register," Snyder said. "We're concerned that no matter how much we get that message out there, people won't understand until they have to get in line. ... This isn't yet broadcast. It's not unlimited."

CBS showed the games on the Internet last year but charged $19.95 for the service. More than 20,000 bought the package.

Computers won't be the only possible distractions to workers. Sprint Nextel plans to offer a tournament package - featuring scores, news and alerts for games that are close at the end - to its cell phone customers. Longtime broadcaster Bonnie Bernstein will be host.

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