1,200 keno terminals gather warehouse dust State overestimated interest in game

October 06, 1993|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Staff Writer

More than 1,200 lottery terminals worth nearly $10 million are sitting unused in a Howard County warehouse largely because state lottery officials overestimated the market for Maryland's flashy new keno game.

The state has already paid GTECH Corp., Maryland's primary lottery vendor, $5.6 million for 750 of the machines and has agreed to pay an additional $3.9 million for the remaining 523 next March.

Financing is to be spread over five years, which means in the coming year, taxpayers will pay at least $225,000 in interest alone for equipment that may gather dust for months.

Even if the agency can find 100 new locations a month for the terminals -- a pace it admits it may have difficulty achieving -- it would take a year before all the warehoused terminals could be put into service.

Legislative analysts say it more likely will take two years.

The problem -- a glut of already-paid-for lottery equipment with no place to put it -- demonstrates that Maryland's market for gambling is saturated, the analysts say. That explains why keno continues to siphon away players and money from more traditional lottery games rather than bring in new customers, they say.

Lottery officials say it is not entirely their fault that the equipment, ordered a month before the keno game was launched in January, is idle.

If keno had not suffered from so much adverse publicity almost from the moment the governor announced it last fall, if legislators hadn't tried to prohibit the game and if a lawsuit hadn't threatened to stop it, they say, the terminals might have been installed by now.

"There's no way we could have predicted what happened," said Martin R. Goldman, director of marketing for the Lottery Agency. "We did the best we could during that time period, but [negative publicity] obviously dramatically hindered our recruitment" of new outlets.

Lottery officials initially predicted that 1,800 keno outlets would be up and running in the first six months of 1993.

But after nine months, barely 1,100 are in operation, and expansion has slowed to a trickle.

"What happened was that no one anticipated some of the impact the political climate was going to have on rolling out this game," said Craig Watson, vice president for public affairs for GTECH.

"June would have been an easily made deadline for installation had that not occurred. The market would bear this number . . . of terminals for this game. That was carefully studied by both sides," Mr. Watson said.

New payment method

This is the first time the Maryland Lottery Agency has paid GTECH for equipment upon delivery rather than as it was installed.

Lottery officials sought the change to minimize the risk of starting the new keno game.

In the past, as terminals were installed, the state paid GTECH a fee for them based on an overall percentage of sales. As installations increased, so did sales and so did GTECH's commission.

But when the Lottery Agency decided to offer keno, it signed a contract obligating the state to pay a set price for the terminals as they were delivered.

The final payment was due in June.

Mr. Goldman said the lottery changed its method of purchasing terminals to a fixed price so it would know precisely what its costs would be for keno, a game with an uncertain future.

"We wanted to lock in our financial exposure," he said.

Lottery spokesman Carroll H. Hynson Jr. contended it is still "within the realm of possibility" that the agency will be able to find homes for the first 750 terminals, which cost $6,800 apiece, before the next batch must be paid for in March.

The equipment can be used not just for keno, but for any other "on-line" lottery games.

As many as 150 of the terminals are expected to be hooked up with new instant-ticket vending machines that are to be delivered this fall, Mr. Hynson said.

Meanwhile, he said, the agency is "actively recruiting" new lottery outlets.

But when asked if bars, restaurants or other businesses are on a waiting list for terminals, he said, "Not at this time."

Finding locations

The task, officials acknowledged, is to find locations that will attract new lottery customers rather than steal customers from existing sites.

"We want to get them out, but we want to get them out in the right location," Mr. Goldman said. "The worst thing we could do is just put them out. That would destroy our existing relations" with lottery outlets, he said.

In the meantime, he said, the agency sees the equipment "as a nice backup."

When Maryland's entry into keno was first announced, revenues were boldly estimated at $100 million a year.

Now, Mr. Goldman said, the keno figure is more likely to be $60 million. He said that still represents the best per capita return achieved by any of the six states that currently offer the game.

"There were a lot of revenue goals thrown in our lap," Mr. Goldman said.

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