The NCAA tournament is an annual showcase of the nation's best college basketball players, bringing together 65 teams in a single-elimination contest that produces unlikely upsets, last-minute finishes, and a fervor universally known as "March Madness."

It's also a grave threat to the U.S. economy.

Or so say the skeptics. As it has grown in popularity, the tournament has become a spring ritual where even dormant sports fans break out their favorite team jerseys, take part in office pools, watch games online, and talk trash over cubicle walls -- all cutting into an otherwise productive workday. The numbers, if you buy them, are staggering. In 2008, time wasted during the three weeks of March Madness will cost the economy $1.7 billion, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago-based consulting firm.

Indeed, for some, the NCAA tournament has become the nation's only multi-week, all-day excuse to waste time at work -- and many companies now sanction the hoopla or at least turn a blind eye, rather than trying to fight back and run the risk of alienating employees.

In recent years, fans seem to be gaining ground. Ever since CBS Sports started offering free, live video of every game in 2006, people no longer need to sneak off to a sports bar just to catch their 12-seed's shot at glory. Plenty are tuning in, even at work, since many early round games are played during the day. In 2007, online hoops fans viewed 2.6 million hours of the games online, up from 2.1 million hours for the 2006 tourney. CBS predicts a huge boost in traffic this year. "We could have as much as a 50 percent increase due to distribution of links across various popular sites," says Jason Kint, senior vice president and general manager of CBSSports.com. The company is embedding its video player into other sites like ESPN.com, MySpace, Facebook, and Yahoo, all with the goal of boosting distribution and driving traffic.

Just because workers are still at their desks, however, it doesn't mean they're being productive. "When you come in and five people are talking about it, then somebody sends you a link... it's easier to waste time that way," says Lena Bottos, director of compensation for Salary.com, which estimates that the average employee wastes about 1.7 hours a day on a variety non-work tasks. As for March Madness? "That's a big time-waster," she adds.

But economists, pundits, and even other consulting firms have since shot Challenger's estimate to pieces, claiming the tally of lost productivity is really far lower -- and that there are plenty of other ways employees can waste time at work. Just 0.5 percent of employees actually watch games online at work, according to a survey of 1,100 workers, conducted by WorkPlace Media, a Cleveland-based marketing firm. According to the data, only 30 percent of people said they planned to participate in office pools and 26 percent said their bosses were in on the action. Roughly half of workers from the survey said they were not interested in the tourney at all. In fact, Challenger has lowered its own number significantly since 2006 -- when the firm predicted $3.8 billion in lost productivity -- after overestimating how many workers nationwide actually have Web access.
 
In an effort to allay companies' concerns, CBS now offers an online set of instructions for corporate IT departments to shut down access to the live webcasts of the game. So, unless employees can get to IT first with a bribe, most bosses can figure out how to keep the office humming, if they really want to crack down. That said, the network also provides viewers with a trick of their own -- a "boss button" that pops up a dummy spreadsheet and hides the game with the click of a mouse.

Come tournament time, a growing number of companies simply choose to split the difference, allowing office pools but curtailing game-watching during the workday. Advantage Laser Products, an Atlanta-based check-printing service, runs a bracket contest out of its 16-person office. Upper management gets in on the fun, says customer service and sales representative Kristi Remick, who runs the bracket contest, but asks employees not to watch the games online. Even that can bring a little distraction, however. "After each round, I send out an e-mail updating everyone with their scores," she says, "along with some good old-fashioned gloating -- because I am typically winning."