NCAA March Madness is costly even if you never attend a game.

Even if you're stuck at your desk during the NCAA men's basketball tournament, there's a price tag for your fandom. Each year, global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas delves into the effects of March Madness on the U.S. workforce and finds millions of dollars worth of lost productivity.

More than 40 million Americans fill out March Madness tournament brackets, according to the American Gaming Association. When Challenger, Gray & Christmas applied the employment-to-population ratio to that figure last year, it estimated that 23.7 million workers will fill out brackets. However, a 2012 MSN survey found that 86% of all workers will devote at least part of their workday to updating brackets, checking scores and following games during the tournament. Applying the same employment-to-population equation to those 125 million people would yield 81.5 million workers.

With the MSN survey indicating that 56% of all workers planned to spend at least one hour on March Madness activities and the Bureau of Labor Statistics putting last year's average hourly wage at $26, an hour of lost productivity adds up. Even if just 23.7 million people slack off for an hour during the tournament, that's $615 million in lost productivity. If the number is closer to 81.5 million workers, however, that's $2.1 billion in lost labor. While those estimates don't take into account variables in different workplaces, they serve as a reminder of not only the hidden cost of the tournament, but how costly it can be for companies to take workers out of the tournament entirely.

"Any attempt to do so would most likely result in long-term damage to employee morale, loyalty and engagement that would far outweigh any short-term benefit to productivity," says John A. Challenger, chief executive officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Even if you don't watch a second of the tournament at work or check scores between tasks, there's a cost to indulging in March Madness at home. According to a survey from auto-lease resale firm Swapalease, roughly 74% of all customers watch at least some March Madness tournament games, with 61% of that group filling out tournament brackets.

The Society for Human Resource Management found that 81% of offices had no policies discouraging March Madness bracket pools, which means most bracket filers are free to put some money on their brackets. As the Swapalease survey indicated, more than 54% of people who fill out brackets spend $5 or more to do so. Roughly 32% spend $20 or more.

If you're among the roughly 45% of people who don't wager on the tournament, you still pay a price just for watching. Back in 2010, CBS and Turner sports signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal to broadcast March Madness and the Final Four. They've aired all games on a combination of CBS, TNT, TBS and TruTV and have streamed all games through their March Madness Live page and app.

This guaranteed that most games, including the championship, would be aired on pay television. According to the Leichtman Research Group, the average monthly cable bill is $85 and the average monthly satellite bill is $100. While that's less than the $316 average ticket price quoted by resale firm TicketIQ at the start of last year's tournament, it still isn't "free" and is required if you want to use the March Madness app.

Cutting the cord isn't free either. You can catch some tournament games over the air on CBS, but that will require a roughly $40 antenna like Mohu's Leaf if you want to watch games in HD. DirecTV Now ($35 a month), Hulu With Live TV ($40), Playstation Vue ($35) and SlingTV ($25) will let you stream TBS, TNT and TruTV, but they all require an Internet service provider. Those can range from $40 to $80 a month in urban areas, but rural Internet customers know that can reach well above $100 for service good enough to stream games in high definition.

Even if you just wanted to stream games on a wireless device, the average unlimited data plan necessary to do so ranges from $50 to $80 a month. When you finally pick one of these viewing options, the ancillary costs add up quickly. Here's just part of the tally:

  • Gambling: The American Gaming Association says $10.4 billion was wagered on the tournament in 2017, with just $300 million of it wagered legally. That's roughly $20 to $50 per bet.
  • Chicken wings: Finance site WalletHub notes that chicken wing orders increase 24% during the tournament. However, the Department of Agriculture notes that increased overall wing demand and decreased capacity at chicken farms has increased the price of wings at supermarkets 63% from an average of $1.75 a pound last year to $2.72 a pound this year.
  • Beer: According to the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, 17 million barrels of beer are produced in the U.S. in March. That is more than the 15.7 million produced on average during the rest of the year and is more than is produced in any month that isn't the summer stretch from May through August.
  • Vasectomies: As ESPN pointed out a few years back, the number of scheduled vasectomies spikes 50% during March Madness as men use their sick leave to watch games and recuperate. While most insurance covers the procedure, it can cost $700 to $1,000 without insurance.

If you want a ticket to college basketball's big dance, you'll have to pay one way or the other. The basketball is a distraction: It's the price tag that's madness.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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