Lottery launches multistate 'Big Game' Expected popularity of drawing seen as test of new computers

August 31, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

The nation's newest multistate lottery game begins in Maryland today, providing a crucial test of a new state lottery computer system that is not quite up to speed.

Tickets for "The Big Game" go on sale in Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Georgia. For a buck, players can try their luck at winning a prize that starts at $5 million. Jackpots increase if no one wins and could eventually exceed $50 million.

With its big, weekly prize, The Big Game is expected to lure more players, possibly taxing a 12-day-old computer system in Maryland that still contains some "bugs."

However, the Maryland lottery and the company supplying the computer system remain confident.

"There are a few technical glitches and problems we need to resolve, but everything appears headed in the right direction to make the system totally functional," said lottery spokesman Carroll H. Hynson Jr.

Some lottery agents have complained of frozen keno monitors and slow-acting or broken computers in the new system, which has been supplied and operated by Automated Wagering International Inc. since Aug. 19.

Hynson said such complaints are largely "isolated," and AWI is working on problems.

The glitches probably accounted for a drop of $1.5 million, or 9

percent, in lottery sales during AWI's first seven days on the job.

AWI predicted a smooth launch of The Big Game today.

"The software has been thoroughly tested, and we're ready to go," said Scott Milne, a senior vice president for lottery accounts.

Based in Atlanta, the company is the second largest in the U.S. lottery industry. In May, AWI was fired by the Arizona Lottery because of computer problems more severe than have occurred in Maryland.

About 2 percent of the almost 3,800 terminals in Maryland are not working -- somewhat more than one would expect on any given day, Hynson said.

Some merchants worry that sluggish computers, combined with intense player interest in The Big Game, could mean long lines at lottery terminals.

"We're not in the business of just doing lottery, and we're a little VTC concerned about the lines that might start forming with The Big Game," said Steven Marks, director of retail accounting at Giant Food Inc., which sells lottery tickets at a third of its 97 supermarkets in Maryland. "I'm hoping we'll still be able to sell groceries," he joked.

At Button's Liquor Store in the Yorkridge Shopping Center in Lutherville, "people have been asking about [The Big Game] all week," said owner Craig Button. "We're ready."

The first Big Game drawing will be Friday in Illinois. The game resembles Powerball, played in 20 states and Washington, and the six state lotteries hope it will compete directly with the older multistate game.

The Maryland Lottery expects the game to bring $17 million to $19 million into state coffers each year. Although not earmarked for the Baltimore Ravens stadium, some of the new revenue could be used to finance that National Football League project.

In The Big Game, players choose five numbers from 1 to 50, and one bonus number from 1 to 25. They must match all six numbers to win the jackpot, beating odds of 1-53 million.

Pub Date: 8/31/96

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