Every year when March Madness rolls around you see headlines about how much money the U.S. economy loses because of wasted productivity during the first two days of the tournament. The idea sounds plausible: thousands of businesses will suffer because millions of employees are watching scores on their computers or watching games on their phone instead of actually working. Wasted productivity will cost hundreds of millions, or even billions, of dollars.

Don’t believe it.

For starters, the numbers assume that U.S. workers are basically digging ditches and when they waste a half hour one less ditch will get dug that day. But in our world that’s not how most productivity happens. People are paid to get their work done. Many employers aren’t bothered by little diversions if they keep morale high. They may actually improve productivity. If they don’t, most of those employees will make up the work they miss on Thursday and Friday by catching up on emails at home or doing a little more next week. You simply can’t compute wasted productivity by multiplying and hourly wage by an hour spent in distraction at work.

Even more importantly, the numbers don’t make any sense. This year the firm of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas estimate that $134 million will be lost in worker productivity. Last year the number was $175 million. In 2008 it was an incredible $1.7 billion. So workers are on their computers and mobile devices less in 2013 than in 2008?

When you read the three page press release from Challenger, Gray, and Christmas (what kind of person reads those things!), the numbers get even more convoluted. The headline says nearly one-third of workers spend three hours per day following the tournament during work. Sounds high, but maybe. The second paragraph, however, says that 3 million employees will spend 1 to 3 hours each day on the tournament at work. With roughly 150 million people in the U.S. workforce, only 3 million employees “wasting” time doesn’t make sense. It’s certainly not a third.

Later in the report for Challenger, Gray, and Christmas, they claim that online coverage attracted 220 million visits in 2012, for an average of 2.2 million visitors per day. What am I missing? The tournament doesn’t last for a hundred days. The math doesn’t add up.

Anyway, the firm gets their 3 million number by assuming that that 2.2 million figure will increase this year. Then, assuming 3 million workers wasting one hour per day, they multiply it by the average hourly wage ($22.38), double that number (for Thursday and Friday), and come up with $134 million. What a crapshoot.

Here’s the bottom line: no one really knows how many workers will follow the games this afternoon. No one really knows for how long they are diverted from work. No one knows what these workers make each hour, or if they are even hourly employees. No one knows whether their bosses are fine with a little March Madness in the office. No one knows whether the wasted productivity is made up elsewhere. No one knows how productive these workers are on a normal day. The statistic is worthless. It doesn’t demonstrate much of anything, except our tendency to repeat statistics without knowing where they come or if they even make sense.

I hope you enjoy March Madness. I’ll be with my two older boys in Detroit at Michigan State’s opening round game.

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9 thoughts on “Wasted Productivity and a Waste of a Statistic”

  1. Paul Brandes says:

    Love this. Editing question: is the $175 BILLION in the quote: “Last year, the number was $175 billion…” supposed to be MILLION? I think it makes more sense that way. Great post!

  2. Bill says:

    Good stuff, and as a numbers person by trade, I don’t believe these numbers either (as I read TGC during work ours).
    Another one that bothers me is when a fixed salaried person will hire someone to do a household task instead of doing it themselves by using justification that its “cheaper” to higher a landscaper by the hour compared to what they make an hour. Whatever that person does during their hours at home isn’t going to increase or decrease their fixed salary. If they really want to use that logic, then they need to consider what it costs them per hour to watch Duck Dynasty or read TCG at home in the evening. Now if you are in sales full commision, or you own a business? Different story.

  3. Kevin DeYoung says:

    Thanks Paul. I’ll fix the typo.

  4. WR says:

    Interesting post. But why is this on the Gospel Coalition blog again?

  5. Edward VanderWoude says:

    I enjoy reading your blog each day, but being from NW Indiana and having gotten my Masters at VU, I’m hoping the Crusaders pull an upset! :-)

  6. Nathan Leamer says:

    Excellent post, I regularly enjoy it when you drop some economic truth bombs

  7. Flyaway says:

    Kevin–So glad you can take some time off and be with your boys. So important. As a former teacher I doubt any teachers will get the time off. I had to cry crocodile tears to get the time off to go to my grandmother’s funeral.

    23 Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.

  8. Steve Coomes says:

    Great thoughts Pastor. At first when I saw the title of your post I thought you were going to talk about how we shouldn’t waste time during March Madness. I’m glad you believe we should take a little time to enjoy some entertainment!

  9. anaquaduck says:

    Now thats not very protestant of you…But in truth we are not machines, we are people & as much as we are made or born to work, enjoyment & relaxation are part of who we are. If economics & profits rule the day & night & money is seen to be the only answer to our needs then misery is sure to follow.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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