- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

With soccer-crazed Europeans poised to choose between their sport and job responsibilities, the World Cup could drain productivity overseas, economists and employment specialists warn.

More than 3 million fans are expected to travel to Germany to see World Cup games live, and a billion are expected to watch on television in Europe alone. Worldwide, workers will miss a total of 4 million days of work, and millions will watch live broadcasts of games through high-speed Internet connections at their offices.

“The bottom line is that there is going to be less productivity,” said Michael Newman, vice president and general counsel for Websense, an Internet security firm with offices in California and the United Kingdom. “You’re definitely going to be dealing with people who are a little bit more distracted.”

One poll revealed that 15 percent of Croatians plan to call in sick at least once during the World Cup. Another poll suggested that absenteeism could rise 20 percent in the Netherlands.

In England, almost half of all fans, aged 16 to 24, said they would call out of work at least once.

According to British law firm Brabners Chaffe Street, if even half of workers in the UK spent an hour surfing the Internet during the World Cup, it would cost the country 4 billion pounds, or about $7.8 billion, in lost productivity.

“With much more entertaining Web sites and chat rooms than there were four years ago, [soccer] fans are going to find themselves spending more and more time online when they should be working,” said Joe Shelston, an employment law specialist with the firm. “The danger for employers is that they assume that so long as their workers are at their desk, there is no problem.”

The phenomenon is analogous to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in the U.S., where this year 100,000 people watched live online broadcasts of the first two days of the event. The tournament cost U.S. companies nearly $4 billion, according to Challenger, Gray and Christmas, a Chicago company that tracks employment trends.

But the World Cup is far bigger than any other sporting event, capturing fan attention for an entire month. And as workers download games on their office computers, networks can become sluggish or stop working.

“You’ve got a number of bad things converging,” Mr. Newman said. “There’s an inevitable distraction, and it’s compounded by the data flow that’s coming through the company network. In some office locations, that can bring down the network by itself.”

Meanwhile, fans are expected to place more bets on the World Cup than any sporting event in history. British bookmakers are expected to receive $1.9 billion in bets, with available bets ranging from wins and losses to the number of corner kicks in a game. (Bets placed in Las Vegas during the last Super Bowl totaled less than $100 million.)

There are more than 80,000 gambling Web sites — including several high-profile sites operating legally in Europe — that will add billions more in bets and drain worker productivity.

But in the U.S., where soccer is not a national phenomenon, the economic impact will likely be minimal.

“The number of die-hard soccer fans is tiny compared to Europe,” said James Pedderson, director of public relations for Challenger, Gray and Christmas. “Certainly, some fans will be less productive … but the number of people who do this will pale in comparison to the numbers of people who tune into March Madness and other major sporting events.”

At least one report suggests that the World Cup can improve productivity in the workplace by lifting fans’ morale. The report commissioned by Hudson, a British recruitment and retention company, said fewer than 3 percent of workers think an interest in sports makes them less productive. One-fifth of all men in the survey actually said sports increases their motivation.

“The results reveal that sport — and conversations between staff and customers, managers and staff, men and women — can have a positive impact on boosting morale and improving mood, motivation and productivity in the working environment,” the Hudson report said. “The forthcoming [soccer] World Cup is an example of one such sporting event which is expected to have a major impact on the working world.”

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