A Publication of WTVP

Imagine you’re a boss in a typical office environment, cubicles and all. You’re putting the final touches on an office-wide email that contains information on a new method of doing business to be implemented immediately. You’ve put time, effort and thought into carefully wording this email in an attempt to avoid any confusion.

You answer a few questions from your best workers and are, on the whole, largely satisfied with the response. Yet something feels amiss. You step out of your office, and lo and behold, significant portions of your workforce are nowhere to be found. You wander around, bewildered at where all your employees could be. Eventually, you come across them, grouped around a couple of computers, excitedly discussing whether or not a certain running back can duplicate last season’s success. They’re holding a draft for the office fantasy football league. No one has even read your email. What do you do?

This is the question that many managers find themselves dealing with on a daily basis. Should they allow fantasy sports in the work environment, and if so, to what degree?

Connecting Sports Fans
For those who don’t know, fantasy sports is quickly becoming one of the most popular activities on the Internet. A recent BusinessWeek article estimated the number of fantasy players in the U.S. and Canada at 30 million—up more than 50 percent in the last two years alone.

Essentially, fantasy sports offers a way for fans to feel even more connected to their favorite professional sports, most notably the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball. In its most standard setup, fantasy sports functions in leagues consisting of 10 to 12 players, or owners. Before the start of any major sports season, a draft is held in which each owner drafts a team of players from the chosen sport.

The statistics these players then accumulate throughout the course of the season are either converted into one point total (in the case of football) or broken down into several other categories (as in basically every other fantasy sport). Each fantasy team plays a different team in its respective league every week until the top four or so teams with the best records enter a series of playoff rounds during the final weeks of a sport’s season.

Eventually, a champion is named, as teams knock each other off and bragging rights are awarded until the next fantasy season comes around. It is a surprisingly competitive activity, especially when you consider that the foundation of any successful team has less to do with any “skill” of a team owner in selecting the team than just pure luck.

From Secret to Sensation
So how did we get here? How did fantasy sports move out of a very nerdy, dimly lit backroom and into the bright lights of popular culture? Well, you can either blame or thank the Internet.

A variety of websites have greatly increased the ease with which a fantasy league and team can be managed. Gone are the days of pen-and-paper fantasy drafts, with whiteboards listing the names of available players; today, everything is electronic, digital and easy. Players are neatly ranked in terms of perceived value in pop-up charts, predictions are made for the statistics each player will accrue during the upcoming season, and hour-long shows litter the television landscape. You don’t have to know a thing about the sport to have a successful fantasy team these days; you don’t even have to draft the team yourself, as a computer can automatically draft the highest ranked player at each draft spot.

Acting as a direct complement to the technological advances in fantasy sports are the significant efforts made by all of the major sports to support it. Pregame programs on ESPN and other sports networks afford large periods of air time to addressing the fantasy concerns of their viewers. Commercials regularly feature the best players hanging out with a guy in his front room, as a regular Joe coerces a star athlete to play better for him this week—lest Joe face more humiliation from his friends.

When the networks and the sports leagues themselves recognize that fantasy sports is good for business, there is really nothing that can be done to stop it from growing. Like it or not, fantasy sports is here to stay—and only gaining in popularity.

Upsides and Downsides
But when it comes to fantasy sports in the workplace, there is clearly a mixed bag of upsides and downsides. While studies have claimed that the game can dramatically decrease workplace functions, it does not take long to think of the positives of allowing the activity, while acknowledging a few caveats. For one, people are going to play it no matter what. And with the advent of mobile internet browsing, there is little to stop employees from glancing down at their phones—and fantasy teams—at any time of the day.

In today’s world, just as work increasingly goes home with employees, so does play increasingly creep into the workplace. And that may not be a bad thing for employee satisfaction, so long as it is kept within reasonable limits.

But fantasy sports can also inspire gambling, much like the March Madness bracketing for the men’s NCAA basketball tournament. Gambling has the potential to create problems in any environment, and any office-backed fantasy league should, of course, abstain from any gambling. Fantasy sports also has the potential to make non-players feel isolated and alienated from the rest of the office, but really, this is no different from any other subject discussed around the water cooler. Not everyone can always have the same interests.

Along that same line, people are going to take short breaks throughout the day, regardless of what they are doing; therefore, quantifying the time lost in a workday is very difficult to do. And for jobs in which the content that an employee produces is his or her main contribution, fantasy sports can actually benefit the quality of the work produced.

Real Life Experiences
Take, for example, Alex Reside, a lifelong resident of central Illinois who recently moved to the East Coast. Reside says that fantasy sports has impacted his new career as a photo editor in a unique way. “It’s a positive thing,” he said. “Being at my computer all day can drain me. When my work isn’t exciting, I can always click my bookmark bar for ESPN and instantly feel better—even if my team is bad.”

Beyond providing a brief respite, he notes that an interest in fantasy sports smoothed his transition into a new environment. “It helped me get to know the editor in chief of the site,” said Reside. “She is really into fantasy football. It’s nice to find that common ground with someone, especially after just beginning working here.” Such is a case of fantasy sports being very good for teambuilding and camaraderie in the workplace.

Philip Lasseigne, an editor in Peoria, also doesn’t see much of a problem with fantasy sports in the office. “In any workplace,” said Lasseigne, “the focus should be on work, first and foremost. However, if fantasy teams are checked just once a day during lunch or another break, and as long as it doesn’t distract you from your job duties, I don’t see an issue with it.”

Case by Case
The implementation of fantasy sports into the workplace should clearly only be undertaken if the job fits the activity, however. Both Lasseigne and Reside work in creative environments in which periodic breaks may be beneficial to the creative process. Not all environments function in this way. The character of each unique workplace should be taken into account before either allowing or banning fantasy sports.

An environment in which productivity equals time spent on a project or task probably shouldn’t allow fantasy sports. On the other hand, employers looking to foster a work environment in which frequent short breaks are encouraged, and even beneficial, may consider fantasy sports as a method of relaxation.

Speaking firsthand, fantasy sports can be a great thing. They can make you feel more connected to your favorite athletes and teams, or give you a rooting interest in games that you previously would have just skipped over. They add excitement and a sense of personal pride when the athletes you so astutely drafted live up to your lofty expectations.

As an employee, it’s vital to respect your employer’s stance on the activity and to act accordingly. If they’re fine with it, enjoy yourself, but don’t go overboard. Everyone can use a break from reality now and then. Why not take that break by playing a game that has “fantasy” in its title? iBi