What goes online

Last week, the most interesting competition surrounding "March Madness," the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, didn't take place on the court.

Last week, the most interesting competition surrounding "March Madness," the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, didn't take place on the court.

It took place in the media, both online and off, as Slate's Jack Shafer and The Wall Street Journal's Carl Bialik eviscerated a study from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an employment consulting firm, which stated lost productivity stemming from the NCAA tournament games would total a monstrous $3.8 billion. The overall argument against the figure, it seemed, was that employees already waste time online and that those who followed the games during work hours would just shift their time wasting from eBay to NCAA.

Fuzzy math and debunking aside, the analysis shows how occupied employees are by the March Madness proceedings. This devotion isn't lost on sports entertainment providers, who are constantly ratcheting up the basketball coverage they provided to desk-tethered fans.

The tournament draws perhaps an unparalleled amount of attention from casual and serious fans alike, due to the infamous office pool and its addictive single elimination format. The national champion has to win six games in a row to succeed. Determining who to pick and then following the 66 games played during the tournament requires a lot of work and a lot of time on sports-themed websites, which view March Madness as the gift that keeps giving.

Even companies so Draconian as to block employees from accessing non-essential Web sites are unable to prevent their staffs from furtively receiving scores from friends elsewhere employed.

Though CBS has held sole broadcasting rights for some time, its Internet site CBSSportsline.com has held equal footing with ESPN.com, which has a very powerful brand presence in the sports arena. Devotion to a particular site is aided by the digitalization of NCAA brackets, where pool participants have used ESPN, Yahoo, and CBS Sportsline, among others, to keep track of standings.

The two have tried to create more bells and whistles each year to attract unique users. For example, CBS Sportsline now runs a live game blog, or "glog," which provides updated commentary beyond the scores and stats. While blog nerds will scoff – as there are no comments, trackbacks, or links to outside sources – CBS's glog gives it a competitive advantage over ESPN in the eyes of fans (all three of them) who actually consider the color commentary an asset.

This year television netweok CBS, through a partnership with NCAA Sports, also hit a home run by making all the games available on NCAASports.com to PC users with the proper software. So, in a move that obviously took no shortage of bandwidth, CBS Sportsline began streaming all games not showing in an individual local area. Not only did this appeal to workers viewing clandestinely, but basketball-hungry ex-pats working in, say, Germany where American college basketball ranks way below Home Improvement reruns.

The company only allowed 200,000 users at any particular time, but allowed those left in the cold to wait in a queue, much like a nightclub, to gain entry once enough people left due to server hiccup or "the man" finding out.

While the Challenger, Gray & Christmas survey has been called into question, one has to wonder how long before a IT consultancy issues a glistening press release across the transom of how much streaming NCAA games is costing companies in bandwidth.

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