Fantasy football, a morale builder or productivity killer?

jsalman@bradenton.comSeptember 3, 2012 

MANATEE -- JR Kyllonen's life just got a bit busier.

Like many, the 27-year-old North Sarasota man is bracing for the start of professional football season, which opens Wednesday.

But for Kyllonen, that means more than just huddling around the TV screen.

He already has begun monitoring player contract holdouts that could linger well into the season. He's tracking injuries for all 32 teams. He has an eye on the sports pages constantly, scouting potential no-namers who could make a mark this year.

Kyllonen is one of 27 million people in the United States and Canada who play fantasy football. It's a way of life.

"The best part is having bragging rights when you win," he said. "I enjoy the friendly rivalry."

As fantasy football explodes across working America, more laborers are taking time from their daily routine to keep up with an online game that can become an all-consuming passion from September through year's end.

Some employers are worried that passion is reducing employee productivity -- especially for office workers with constant access to computers and smart phones. Others see it as a morale booster.

Fantasy football, which involves drafting and fielding a virtual team of NFL players to out-score opposing teams, has mushroomed since its roots in 1963.

Kyllonen has been playing the popular online strategy game with friends since high school, reaching the league Super Bowl once but never taking home the big prize.

He keeps tabs of his team throughout the day on his Android, checking during lunch and every break while working at American Torch Tip Co. in Bradenton. But he vows not to let the hobby impact his job performance.

Others around the country can't say the same thing.

An estimated 13.6 million Americans openly admit they play fantasy football at work, even if it means finishing one less report or skipping a few client calls.

Now there are TV and radio broadcasts that solely focus on fantasy football. So-called expert subscriber services are making millions of dollars just from selling tips. And players are putting up big money to join a league, sometimes several. Players can spend anywhere from a modest $20 to several thousand.

Human resources specialists say

all that distraction can put a strain on worker productivity.

But as long as the office culture is controlled, most gamers know their limits, said Katie Loehrke, human resources editor for J.J. Keller and Associates Inc., a compliance resource firm that's been analyzing the impact of fantasy football.

"It can be a problem if employees let it get out of control," Loehrke said. "But in a lot of places, it's no different than the daily banter of what was on TV the night before."

Fantasy football players spend an estimated nine hours each week managing their teams, including an average of 10 minutes during the work day on team-related duties.

Those habits equal a lost productivity price tag calculated at $7.4 billion for a 17-week fantasy league season, according to J.J. Keller and Associates.

The amount of time an employee might spend researching injury reports and player match ups to craft a winning lineup can be curbed through a strict Internet policy, Loehrke said.

Still, some employees can work around the issue by using a smart phone to fine tune their strategy.

But it's not all bad.

If employees seem to huddle up for a few minutes to compare injury reports and roster moves, fantasy football can be a good way to encourage team-building -- also opening a safe avenue for small talk.

"Anytime you find something people have in common it can build morale," Loehrke said. "Fantasy football is that. It can really bring people together."

One thing is for sure, fantasy football seems to be here to stay.

If nothing else, if gives fans another reason to tune into the sport they love -- even if it means ditching a conference call to replace an ailing running back.

"Especially with your friends and people you know, it's a good way to keep in touch no matter where you live," said area resident Julian Daucourt, who's in two leagues. "The trash talking is always fun, and if you can make a little money, even better."

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman

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