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Fantasy football leagues concern employers

August 13, 2007

The kickoff of the National Football League season this month has many central Indiana employers fearful that fantasy will encroach on reality.

And no, they're not concerned about the Indianapolis Colts' chances at repeating as Super Bowl champs.

The fretfulness revolves around the start of the fantasy football season, where fans draft real players onto make-believe teams and track their individual touchdowns, rushing yards, interceptions and other statistics often via organized Web sites such as CBSsportsline.com or ESPN.com.

Fantasy football is one of many potential online distractions that can reduce workplace productivity. But its rapid rise in popularity, labor experts said, makes it a growing concern.

A recent study by Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago-based business consulting firm, reported nearly 37 million people nationwide spend almost one hour a week at work managing their fantasy teams, costing employers as much as $1.1 billion a week in lost productivity.

The 17-week NFL regular season stretching from September through December, according to the study, results in a fourth-quarter $18.7 billion productivity loss.

Fantasy leagues are scoring participants faster than Peyton Manning throws touchdown passes, with North American participation growing from 8 million in 1998 to nearly 40 million this year, according to fantasy sports industry sources.

With the Colts coming off their first Super Bowl championship since moving to Indianapolis, interest in fantasy football could be red hot here.

"Almost everyone I know is in at least one league," said Dean Frazier, a 29-year-old self-employed information technology consultant. "Some people live and die for it, and a lot of the Colts fans are right in the middle of it."

Thanks to multiple Web sites tracking injury and progress reports, Frazier usually checks the Internet four or five times a day during the season to monitor his fantasy team.

Analysis of fantasy football teams and leagues has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years, giving fans even more to track online.

One Web site, Myfantasyball.com, analyzes NFL players as if they were financial investments for fantasy football owners. The site uses a formula to develop a risk/reward analysis for fantasy team owners similar to the concept used by economists, financial advisers and money managers to value stocks and other investments.

"I'm a big fantasy fan, and even I have to admit that some of this has gotten a little out of hand," Frazier said.

Some of what's gotten out of hand, said Challenger Gray and Christmas CEO John A. Challenger, is the time spent at work monitoring and talking about fantasy football.

"If it's not the Internet, it could be 10 minutes of chatting around the water cooler with other league aficionados," Challenger said.

Hard to defend

Controlling fantasy football activities at work can be more complex than the Cover 2 defense.

Some employers have launched an all-out blitz to stop fantasy play at work, while others are instituting policies that act as a preventive defense, said Brad Alge, an assistant professor of management at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management.

"The various forms of technology that have streamlined the way many companies do business can also be abused by employees," said Alge, an expert in workplace technology who played football at the University of Notre Dame from 1985-1988.

Alge said the problem will only get worse and must be addressed.

"Many of my students are really into fantasy football, so the problem isn't going away," he said. "As technology continues to infiltrate the workplace, employers have a whole new set of problems, especially with the generations that grew up with the technology and are more adept at using it. The issue goes way beyond fantasy football."

The key to handling fantasy football is dealing with it before it becomes a major workplace distraction, said Todd Nierman, managing attorney in the local office of Littler Mendelson, which specializes in labor and employment law.

Nierman suggests establishing clear policies regarding workplace technology, including limiting use of Internet and e-mail to work-related functions.

If gambling is associated with fantasy football--as is often the case, Nierman said--all bets should be off on the activity on company-owned property. Downloading copyrighted materials from fantasy Web sites on company-owned computers can open up firms to liability issues, he added.

Allowing employees, even in their off-time, to use company facilities such as conference rooms for drafts and other fantasy-league activities can open up a company for requests from other employee groups involved in other special interests. If those requests aren't treated equally, Nierman said, that can create the possibility for discrimination lawsuits.

"Prohibiting [fantasy football] is easy for a company to say, but it's difficult to enforce," Nierman said. "Consistency in enforcement is essential."

Web and e-mail monitoring, though time-intensive for employers, is rapidly becoming common practice in U.S. workplaces, Alge said, with programs such as Surf Watch and Little Brother becoming the spy tools of choice.

Eighty percent of companies already electronically monitor their employees in some way, Alge said, "but that doesn't mean they analyze the data or do anything about it."

An opportunity to score

Policing such activities comes with a tradeoff.

There is a major decline in morale among younger workers when an employer is viewed as being too heavy-handed in trying to micromanage employees' activities, Frazier said. "If you want a non-productive Generation Y employee, put him on a short leash."

Try to limit computer use at work, Frazier said, and younger employees will "whip out a BlackBerry or iPhone."

"The focus should really be on an employee's ability to meet goals and objectives," Alge said, "not how those goals and objectives are met."

There can be an upside, Nierman said, to letting employees come together for a common activity such as fantasy football leagues.

"Companies could actually use fantasy football leagues as a way to bring employees together," Nierman said. "Employers spend a lot of money to get their employees to bond, and here's a way."

In a factory or more structured setting, controlling the problem may be easier than in an office setting, Nierman said.

"Curing the productivity loss is not that simple," he said. "That's why companies should look at ways of embracing this as a positive and gaining something back by becoming a place where people want to work."

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