Hoped-for windfall from el Gordo turns into poco dinero

December 25, 1992|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Staff Writer

Santa Claus has finished his seasonal duties, but the othe famous fat guy, el Gordo, still has a mountain of lottery tickets to move.

Although ticket sales for the high-stakes el Gordo drawing have picked up in recent days, there is virtually no chance that all 5 million tickets will be sold by the cutoff at 7:50 p.m. Saturday. In fact, lottery officials were happy that they hit the 1.8 million mark yesterday, the break-even point for paying out the prize money.

"A sell-out would be wonderful, but we're just excited to be where we are right now," said Maryland Lottery spokeswoman Elyn Garrett-Jones.

To understand the odds against a sell-out, consider this: Today and tomorrow el Gordo would have to move 15 times as many tickets as it did on its best day. And many of the state's 2,000 computerized outlets are closed today for Christmas.

As of late yesterday, only 1,821,828 tickets had been sold.

El Gordo, Spanish for "The Fat One," will yield a single jackpot of $10 million and lesser prizes ranging from $25 to $1 million. Each ticket costs $5.

At 1.8 million ticket sales, el Gordo earned enough money to pay for the annuities used to finance the cash awards. But the state would have to sell 2 million tickets to cover its advertising and start-up costs.

Because ticket sales are off, the odds of winning the $10 million prize will be appreciably better than if sales were brisk. If 2 million tickets are sold, for example, the odds of winning the big one will be one in 2 million.

The number of other prizes awarded is tied to total sales. A $1 million drawing is held for every 500,000 tickets sold. With $1.8 million in sales, three $1 million prizes would be guaranteed. The fourth drawing could produce a $1 million winner, but only if the winning ticket number in that batch has been sold. If the winning number has not been sold, the prize is not awarded.

Although Ms. Garrett-Jones called the contest a "success" yesterday, it now seems unlikely to produce anything close to the $8 to $10 million holiday bonus officials once expected.

Lottery officials initially predicted a quick sellout. Then they said they expected all 5 million tickets to be gone by Dec. 26 in a flurry of last-minute Christmas shopping.

Sales have increased sharply this week. On Wednesday, 144,922 tickets were sold. That's the best since the first day, when players gobbled up 211,510 after a two-week advertising campaign. Yesterday's sales were on a pace to beat that first-day record.

"I guess, true-to-form, there are a lot of last-minute shoppers out there, and they're finding that el Gordo makes the perfect gift," Ms. Garrett-Jones said. At some locations, vendors even provided a special Christmas card featuring el Gordo pitchman Boog Powell.

At Rotunda Wine & Spirits, Brenda Prince bought four orange-and-white tickets for family members. She planned to attach a note to each one, advising the recipient that any prize money ought to be shared.

Ken Liller, who got one el Gordo ticket from his mother, bought a second one for his 46th birthday, which falls the same day as the drawing. He saw it as a collector's item.

"This will probably be the last time you can buy it, because they'll probably drop it next year," Mr. Liller said.

Nancy Hamilton, a liquor store cashier, said sales picked up "a little" in recent days, but that sales overall have been slow.

Steven C. Edwards, a manager at a Royal Farm store in Woodlawn, has a theory about that: "If you've got $5 for a toy, or $5 for gambling, you're going to buy the toy for your kid. It's a bad time of year. They should have done it in midsummer."

Other merchants said the $5 price, and the fact that ticket numbers are assigned, was a turn-off for their customers, who prefer to pick their own numbers in the lottery's other games.

But Ms. Garrett-Jones said el Gordo was designed to bring in the occasional player, and seemed to be helping sales for other games.

El Gordo, inspired by a Spanish lottery game, was announced Nov. 23, after an extensive series of "teaser" ads. The advertising campaign, which cost about $1 million, then moved on to television spots featuring former Oriole Boog Powell, dressed in Hollywood-Mexican bandit garb as he roared through a Western town, tossing out bags of gold.

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