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David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds, has a scheduling conflict.
He is delivering a speech to JPMorgan Chase employees at 1pm New York time, just as the US national soccer team starts the second half of its World Cup game against Germany.
As he speaks, other colleagues will gather in the lobby of the bank’s Manhattan headquarters to see what might turn out to be the most-watched soccer game in US history.
“I wonder if we should bend to the inevitable and postpone the speech,” joked Kelly, 50, an Irishman who said he would root for the US team.
“People on Wall Street can be quite imaginative when they want to watch something, so I’m sure people will be able to find some way.”
Kelly’s predicament is one that soccer fans face every four years during the world’s most-watched sporting event, when games often air live during business hours.
As ratings records fall and social media influence rises, US companies are taking new approaches to the prospect of employees keeping at least one eye glued to the games.
“I’m way more interested than I used to be,” said Neil Vogel, the chief executive of About.com, which has just under 200 employees in its New York office.
“It seems very culturally relevant now.”
The website, owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp, showed the June 12 tournament-opening game on about “250 inches worth of televisions” and the World Cup had not been a productivity concern, Vogel said in a telephone interview.
“It’s more important that the guys working in tech are sitting around with the guys working in sales,” he said.
“People who usually don’t interact much get to sit together and watch soccer for an hour and a half.”
As at many businesses across the country, Ladenburg Thalmann Financial Services employees watch games on flat-screen TVs in the firm’s New York offices.
“Audiences around the world are watching these games, and it’s having a direct impact on the market,” said Philip Blancato, 46, the chief executive of the company’s asset-management division.
During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, trading volume in Latin American countries dropped an average of 77 percent when their national teams were playing, according to the European Central Bank.
Trading volume in Africa dropped 63 percent, 43 percent in the US and 38 percent in Europe.
Through the first 32 games of the tournament, ESPN’s coverage drew a 50 percent increase in viewers compared with the same point in the 2010 World Cup, and twice as many viewers as the 2006 tournament in Germany.
The American team’s 2-2 tie against Portugal on June 22, a Sunday, was the most-watched soccer match in US history, with an average of 18.2 million viewers on ESPN.
From June 1 through June 22, the World Cup had more Twitter mentions in the US than the next four closest countries combined, according to data compiled by SAP.
The US team was the fourth-most talked-about on the social media site, trailing Brazil, England and Spain.
Twitter says 77 percent of its user accounts are outside the US.
The interest was noticed by Ohio-based steel company Worthington Industries which last week changed the start time of its quarterly earnings conference call to avoid conflict with the US-Germany match.
Heineken, the world’s third-biggest brewer and the principal sponsor of the UEFA Champions League since 2005, turned workplace productivity concerns into a marketing opportunity.
It created a video that featured Heineken USA chief marketing officer Nuno Teles urging employers to allow staff a “#BrazilianNoShow” for World Cup games.
Teles, a native of Portugal, said in a telephone interview that he had created the campaign because of the company’s ties to the sport, his own passion for soccer and Heineken’s branding message of going beyond established norms to fulfil desires.
Teles said he had moved to the US in March after four years in Brazil, and his expectations of US soccer enthusiasm had been surpassed.
“I was very positively surprised by the excitement,” Teles said.
“This is going to be a growing trend over the next years as the emotional engagement is there.”
Outside the US, many employers have gone one step further.
Brazilian cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Fortaleza declare holidays when the national team plays, and financial markets close two hours ahead of the games.
At General Motors in Brazil, the largest South American subsidiary of Detroit-based General Motors, employees receive vacation days when Brazil plays, said Cristi Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the Chevrolet unit.
Embraer, Brazil’s biggest jetmaker, negotiated with unions at the start of the year to add a few extra minutes to each work day in exchange for letting employees off early to watch Brazil games, said Nelson Salgado, vice-president of institutional relations, in an interview earlier this month.
Codelco, the world’s largest copper producer, owned by the Chilean state, installed giant video screens at its Santiago headquarters and outside mines across the desert.
Employees, except those essential workers on shift, are encouraged to watch the World Cup games.
Not everyone takes this approach.
GM’s vacation policy in Brazil does not apply to its American offices.
Brian Summers, a sales manager at Colonial Life and Colonial Voluntary Benefits in New York, has warned his employees about straying from their desks.
“I tell my staff, ‘The World Cup isn’t paying your wages’,” Summers said.
“If you want to dodge out for a game, someone else will pick up your sales.”
Chicago-based consulting firm Challenger Gray & Christmas estimated that if last week’s audience matched the 16 million that watched the team’s June 16 win over Ghana, US employers would lose about $390 million (R4.1 billion) in wages.
That figure is calculated with the assumption that half of those watching are at work, and the average American makes $48.76 every two hours.
John Challenger, the company’s chief executive, said allowing employees to watch the games, as opposed to discouraging it, might boost productivity in the hours before and after the game.
“Smart companies are thinking we might lose a bit of productivity but we gain from creating tighter relationships,” Challenger said.
JPMorgan employees around the world have been invited to view important games on big screens in the lobbies of a number of the bank’s offices, including New York locations.
“It is unusual for people to be this interested in soccer in America, but it’s a good thing,” Kelly said.
“When you think about it, all the other things going on in the world, it’s nice to see countries fighting it out on the soccer pitch.” – Eben Novy-Williams, Mason Levinson and Jacob Barach for Bloomberg