Originally published in the Dallas Business News
When Jeff Chown and his wife, Mindy, built their new home a few years ago, they modified the plans to accommodate an annual tradition. They turned a walk-in closet into a walk-up bar and wired the family room so they could have five flat-screen TVs running simultaneously on one wall.
Jeff, an executive at TMA, and Mindy invite the whole Dallas company over for the first two days of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Last Thursday and Friday, more than 200 staffers rotated in and out of the Chowns’ home off East Mockingbird Lane to eat, drink and watch the games.
They came with laptops and cellphones and worked while they made merry among a sea of colleagues. Some of them retreated to quiet zones, stepped outside for phone calls or went upstairs to dial into conference calls.
Jeff and Mindy, both die-hard University of Texas fans, have been hosting the two-day, all-day, company-sponsored event for 11 years.
It all started 18 years ago when Jeff Chown and a buddy, both junior staffers at TMA, walked to a sports bar to watch the tournament while having lunch. One thing led to another, and their break lasted 2 1/2 hours.
When they confessed their transgression to the boss, Ray Clark, he said he would have been upset if they hadn’t stayed. Extended lunches at the sports bar during the tournament became part of TMA's quirky, close-knit culture.
In 2004, the Chowns held their first March Madness gathering, and each year, it’s gotten a little larger as the staff has multiplied. All told, this year’s two-day festivities cost TMA about $2,500 for food and drink.
The party is always on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament, when 64 teams play 32 games, televised on four networks from about 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Dallas time.
The Chowns’ house reached its capacity of about 75 people during lunch hours and on Friday evening, when many stayed until the final buzzer.
“Having all those games going on at once is brilliant,” says Jeff Chown, president of the celebrity division of the marketing company. “It doesn’t matter whether you know sports or not. People might not care about college basketball, but they come to the house and get swept up in the excitement and the enthusiasm.”
That’s what happened to first-timer Michael Bruner, a 24-year-old multimedia producer who doesn’t care about sports and didn’t bother with the brackets.
“I figured I’d just make a fool of myself,” Bruner says. “I came for the party atmosphere. You feel a little like an outsider, but it’s really enjoyable to see them get so excited about watching some hoops.”
The party has a few unwritten rules.
Underdog teams are typically cheered for over higher seeds. So there was pandemonium when Dayton took down Ohio State, Mercer beat Duke and Stephen F. Austin beat Virginia Commonwealth.
And no one is allowed to visibly root against a “house team” — those colleges favored by staffers with party seniority. UT obviously falls into that select group along with a handful of other alma maters.
“We were really hoping SMU would make the tournament so that there would be another house team,” Chown says.
Michigan State University is one of those jeer-free schools thanks to Basia Wojcik. The 35-year-old director of consulting and a nine-time party vet bleeds Spartan green. When MSU played, Wojcik got to sit at “center court” on the couch and watch the biggest TV, which also had the sound on.
“This is camaraderie at its finest,” Wojcik says. “It’s a chance for everyone to get together, work and play at the same time. It’s what TMA stands for. We say this is better than Christmas, because Christmas isn’t this much fun.”