Lottery boss sells games as show biz Roogow plays down get-rich-quick aspect, stresses amusement

December 28, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Buddy Roogow has a tip for people who play Lotto: Don't buy a ticket in the hope of winning the jackpot.

"The odds of winning are lousy," he said in a recent interview. "How can you say one in 6.9 million is good odds?"

Roogow should know. He runs the game.

In the 14 months since he took over as director of an ailing Maryland lottery, the former aide to Gov. Parris N. Glendening has engineered significant strategic changes and markedly increased the energy level at the 25-year-old agency.

Instead of touting lottery games as a road to riches, Roogow is recasting them as a form of show biz.

"We're fighting for the entertainment dollar," he said. "I felt we've got to change the way we do business and emphasize the entertainment part of our product."

Roogow, 48, is going at that task with the flair of a born promoter. Among other actions, he has:

Changed Lotto so that hitting three of the six numbers wins a $2 prize -- not much, but enough to give players a taste of winning.

Laid plans to launch a game next month called Cash in Hand, which will offer a top prize of $500,000 -- minus taxes -- in one payout and cash prizes of $4 to $1,000.

Swung deals with companies for tie-ins that turn losing tickets into coupons, such as the one for $5 off a Pizza Hut pizza.

Signed a licensing deal with the producers of "Star Trek" under which the lottery could boldly go into the potentially lucrative world of collectible tickets.

He said a recent "Gilligan's Island" scratch-off ticket promotion turned into a surprise bonanza for the Illinois lottery when many ticket buyers decided to hoard them rather than cash them in.

The results of Roogow's efforts are encouraging or reprehensible -- depending on how one views state-sponsored gambling.

Since the former Howard County administrator took over in October 1996, he has brought the agency out of a tailspin that threatened to leave the state tens of millions of dollars short of expected revenue. During the past fiscal year, the lottery exceeded Board of Revenue Estimates projections by $27 million.

The strong performance has carried over into this fiscal year. Sales as of Nov. 30 were running $19.3 million, or 4.6 percent, higher than in the same period of 1996. Lottery sales are closely watched by legislators and state budget officials because the games are the third-largest provider of revenue for the state, earning $392 million in fiscal 1997.

The gains have not come without stumbles.

In August, the lottery agency was embarrassed when The Sun reported that for two years it had been running a Lottery on Wheels program that offered promotional prizes to elderly Marylanders in convalescent homes around the state. Amid charges of exploitation of the elderly, Roogow ended the program, which had been launched during his predecessor's tenure.

Gambling opponents have complained that Roogow's aggressive promotions are irresponsible and tasteless.

Valerie Lorenz, director of the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, accused the agency of crafting its promotions to appeal to children, a charge Roogow denies.

Lorenz, who said her center ends up treating many lottery customers for gambling addiction, heaped scorn on another lottery promotion that uses great works of art on tickets for such games as Money Lisa.

Nevertheless, Roogow's efforts have won praise from lawmakers and the governor.

"His credibility was on the line early on, and I think his credibility is well-established now," said Sen. Martin G. Madden, a Howard County Republican who sits on the committee that oversees the lottery. Glendening, through a spokesman, rated Roogow's performance "excellent."

Roogow, who was Glendening's deputy chief of staff after serving in a similar job under Gov. William Donald Schaefer, was named to head the agency two months after a troubled transition from the past lottery operator to a rival.

Complaints from lottery agents and plunging sales prompted powerful legislators to question the administration's judgment in taking the contract from GTECH Corp. and giving it to Automated Wagering International, the low bidder on the management contract.

At the time, the lottery was being run by an acting chief because its director, Lloyd W. Jones, was increasingly incapacitated by cancer. Jones retired in September 1996, about three months before he died.

Pete Samios, president of the Maryland Lottery Agents Association, said the agency had been adrift for some time because of Jones' illness.

"Buddy came in at a really tough time, but overall you'd have to give him good marks," said Samios, who owns Cranberry Liquors in Westminster. He said that relations with agents have improved and that the early problems with the AWI ticket machines have largely been resolved.

Since taking the $98,764-a-year job, Roogow has been highly visible, frequently going on television and radio to promote his views on the lottery, including his candid assessment of Lotto odds.

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