March 18, 2015 / 10:35 PM / 3 years ago

Obama joins millions in U.S. college basketball madness

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - March Madness gripped the White House and lots of other workplaces on Wednesday as President Barack Obama joined an estimated 60 million Americans scrambling to make their predictions for the annual tournament to crown a collegiate basketball champion.

U.S. President Barack Obama smiles as he walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, upon his return after a one-day trip to Cleveland, Ohio March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Obama, appearing on the ESPN cable network to pick winners round by round, selected undefeated Kentucky to beat Villanova in the April 6 finals of the NCAA Tournament that begins in earnest on Thursday.

The commander-in-chief leads legions in slacking off for “March Madness.”

“We live in an age of distractions. There are many things that our employers have to fight in the workplace today but there’s nothing that compares to the unique event that is March Madness,” said Andy Challenger, vice president of business development at global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

U.S. companies will lose an estimated $1.9 billion in wages to employees being unproductive during their work hours, he said, between researching, filling out brackets, organizing pools and watching games at work.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll this week showed that 23 percent of Americans will fill out at least one bracket and of those, nearly 40 percent will bet more than $10.

In terms of betting in Las Vegas, the college basketball tournament rivals the NFL’s Super Bowl, which attracted $116 million in wagers for the New England Patriots’ victory over the Seattle Seahawks in February.

“Whoever coined the phrase ‘March Madness’ got it correct,” said Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports operations at the Westgate Las Vegas (Nevada) SuperBook.

Kornegay said unlike the Super Bowl, which attracts men and women equally in Las Vegas, NCAA Tournament bettors are “99 percent guys, period.”

Kentucky is considered an overwhelming favorite to win the 68-team tournament and become the first to go through the season unbeaten en route to a national title since Indiana in 1976.

Despite being a self-proclaimed basketball junkie, history is not on Obama’s side. He has correctly picked only one champion since he began making his tournament selections public in 2009.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a potential 2016 Republican presidential candidate, selected the University of Virginia to win the title. He drew some criticism on social media, with skeptics noting that Virginia is a darkhorse to win but the school is located in a state Bush likely needs in order to reach the Oval Office like his brother and father.

Editing by Mary Milliken and Will Dunham

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