King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The Super Bowl of bad math: Hundreds of millions in lost productivity! Huge economic boost for the host city!

By Salon Staff
Published January 30, 2007 5:00PM (EST)

Forget Bears-Colts. This is the week of the Super Bowl of Credulity.

We just need a better name for it. How about the Super Bowl of outlandish claims? Of facts and figures for people who are bad at math. Special bonus: Free lottery tickets for all participants! Only $1 each!

If it takes you five minutes to read this column, you've cost corporate America $81 million. That's the estimate this year from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the Chicago outplacement firm that's very good at three things:

1) Making inane, outrageously inflated estimates of productivity lost by American businesses in advance of major sporting events.
2) Getting its name in the papers.
3) Getting spanked like a monkey for it by this column.

This column needs to get better at getting its name in the papers, apparently, because once again the national media is pretty much swallowing hook, line and stinker Challenger Gray's latest estimate, which is that Super Bowl 41 is costing American business -- ready for it? Think of a crazy number. Double it.

Wrong! Too low. It's $810 million. That's $162 million a day.

And that's nationwide. You should see the estimates for Chicago and Indianapolis. I won't show them to you. You'd go blind. Suffice to say, if Challenger Gray is right, Chicago can't possibly survive the catastrophe. If there's such a thing as Chicago, Ill., a week from today, it'll be a damn miracle.

What Challenger Gray does is estimate that employees spend 10 company minutes a day on the big game during Super Bowl; then it figures that 57 million of the 90 million viewers are workers, multiplies by an average hourly wage of around $17 to get 28.4 cents per minute and, abracadabra, 10 times .284 times 57 million times five equals: $810 million.

Actually it equals $809.4 million, but what's $600,000 worth of baloney between gullible friends?

You're spending half of your daily allotment of Super Bowl wasted time on this column, so that's $405 million for the week, $81 million just today. I hope you're happy.

We've been over this before. Never mind that Challenger Gray pulls that 10 minutes estimate out of its Christmas. And never mind that what makes the Super Bowl such a huge television event is that it attracts millions of people, probably a majority of the audience, who spend not one second thinking about football before kickoff. A Super Bowl party at a neighbor's house this weekend is exactly the same to this great mass of people as if it were a midsummer Sunday barbecue. Just something fun to go do that day.

They're not spending 10 minutes a year thinking about the Super Bowl, never mind 10 minutes a day for a week.

Never mind all that. Just pay attention to how Challenger Gray bases its nutty, headline-friendly assumptions on the idea that workers who spend 10 minutes talking about the Super Bowl have carved those 10 minutes out of their productive work time.

So if you're talking with your cubicle-mate about Peyton Manning, discussing the differences in the cover 2 -- sorry, cover II -- defenses of the Bears and the Colts with the computer guy, pondering silently whether the Bears quarterback will be Super Rex or Bad Rex, that's time you would have spent working if this weren't Super Bowl Hype Week Deux.

You wouldn't have been instant messaging with your friend in accounts receivable during those 10 minutes. Nope. No way you'd have been on the phone with your brother talking about the family reunion this summer. Not a chance you'd have been sneaking a peek at the stream of last night's episode of -- Nuh-UH! His dad's Farmer Hoggett?! -- "24."

Since both columns in this space this week have been about the Super Bowl, and you're reading one of them, then according to Challenger Gray, you're a new reader, because the time you're spending on the Super Bowl is time you otherwise spend on work, not on reading this column. 'Scuse me a minute.

Dear Salon management: I am delivering thousands of brand-new readers to Salon every day this week. I'll just reach into my Christmas and estimate that each of these, oh, 10,000 new readers each day are spending, mmmm, five minutes reading the column. At an average hourly wage of $17, that means my new readers, according to Challenger Gray, are worth -- let's see, carry the four -- about $670,000.

This windfall needn't all go to me. I'm a team player, so I'm asking for an annual raise of $500,000.

Actually, those 10,000 new readers are worth $70,833 by Challenger Gray's loopy thinking, but what's $600,000 worth of baloney between friends?

Challenger Gray's lost-productivity estimates are just silly publicity stunts. They're good ones, and I'm happy to participate. The Web site is at if you're interested in hiring an outplacement firm that doesn't mind playing fast and loose with the numbers if it can benefit.

A little more sinister are those estimates of how much money the Super Bowl brings in to the host city each year. This year's estimate for Miami: $350 million, according to the Web site (PDF) of the South Florida Super Bowl XLI Host Committee.

As Dave Barry put it in the Miami Herald: "What does that mean, in layperson's terms? It means the host committee has been smoking crack."

And since that press release came out in the fall, the estimate has been kicked up to $400 million. I mean, what's $50 million worth of baloney, right?

The trouble with figures like those is that the only people who ever argue for them are in the employ of either the NFL, a host city or some affiliated entity, like a private host committee, a tourism board, a stadium commission. Economists without a personal interest in inflating those numbers are something very like unanimous in saying they're vastly inflated.

The short version is that these rosy figures account only for the positives, the money actually spent on Super Bowl weekend. They don't take into account the business that already would have been conducted -- Miami is a place that has been known to draw a few tourists even in those Februaries when the Super Bowl is elsewhere, for example. They don't take into account the business that's lost when locals steer clear of the crowds by staying home, or skedaddle altogether, or when convention business stays away for two weeks because the weekend in the middle is jampacked.

Everyone agrees there's usually an economic benefit to hosting the Super Bowl, but the estimates of how much by people with no conflict of interest are much more modest than the estimates by interested parties. About a quarter of the publicly proclaimed benefit, on average, one study found. Move the decimal point one place to the left, one econ professor suggested this week.

The good news is the media's gotten pretty good at reporting on this skepticism. Just in the past few years, the "economists cast doubt on the economic boom hype" story has become a staple sidebar of Super Bowl Hype Week 2.

The bad news is these inflated figures are tossed around when the NFL is trying to strong-arm a city somewhere into building a new stadium for one of its teams. Build that stadium and we'll make sure you get a Super Bowl, the league says. That's a $400 million boon to your local economy.

Well, $400 million, $40 million. Minus the cost of the stadium -- the going rate's around half a billion these days. But hey, what's $360 million worth of baloney between friends?

Previous column: Another way to take fans out of the NFL

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