Lotto isn't hitting the numbers

`Jackpot fatigue' has players taking their chances elsewhere

March 23, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Once the engine of Maryland's lottery, Classic Lotto is sputtering as players choose to spend their money on other lottery games.

Lottery officials say they are trying to find ways to revive interest in Lotto, a game in which players pick six numbers from among 49 for a chance to win at least $1 million. If no one wins, the jackpot rolls over and builds.

Lotto reached the highest jackpot level in its 18-year history last week - $24 million - but even that failed to generate much excitement among players.

The game took more than eight months to grow that large, with players spending $2.6 million on tickets in the week before the jackpot was won Saturday by 24 Social Security Administration workers.

Ten years ago, when the game's jackpot reached its previous peak of $21 million, sales were $12.9 million for that week, says Lottery Director Buddy W. Roogow.

The problem, according to Roogow and national lottery experts, is "jackpot fatigue."

With multistate lottery games often producing jackpots of $50 million or more, classic state Lotto games with jackpots that usually run only $1 million to $5 million do not spur the excitement they once did.

"Every time you reach a new record jackpot, you have to go higher to reach that level of excitement again," Roogow says.

At its peak in the mid-1980s, Lotto accounted for nearly a quarter of lottery sales. Now it makes up only about 4 percent of the state's annual lottery sales of $1.2 billion.

"Lotto sales have been falling all over the country, and certainly Maryland is part of that trend," Roogow says.

Multistate game jackpots can reach breathtaking heights, as happened last year when the "Big Game" jackpot hit $363 million - the largest in U.S. lottery history. It generated a frenzy of ticket buying.

Maryland participates in Big Game with six other states. Odds of winning are 1 in 76 million, compared with 1 in 7 million for Maryland's Lotto game.

But players have their eye on the size of the prize, not the odds.

Bruce A. LaFleur, vice president of a lottery research and publishing company based in Montgomery County, says other states that offer Lotto face similar problems.

Lottery jackpots of $40 million or less "barely get a shrug" these days, he says. "The entire industry is caught up in what to do with Lotto," LaFleur says.

Those who play the lottery regularly say the size of a jackpot plays a role in deciding how many tickets they buy.

"I usually get four tickets," said Jerry T. Duncan of Brooklyn as he stood in line at Goldberg's Liquor Store in Brooklyn Park this week. "If it's a bigger jackpot, I go up to eight or 10 tickets."

Phillip R. Conaway of Brooklyn Park said he, too, often buys more than his normal $5 worth of tickets when the jackpot goes up.

"If it's meant to be, it's meant to be," Conaway said of the odds he might win someday.

Phillip J. Cook, co-author of "Selling Hope: State Lotteries in America," says the probability of picking the right set of numbers doesn't change. Therefore, it is completely rational for more players to jump in as a lottery jackpot rises.

However, most players have no idea of just how remote their chance of winning actually is, says Cook, a Duke University professor of public policy.

Picking six numbers out of 49 in a typical state Lotto game sounds reasonable enough but the odds of winning are truly astronomical, he says.

"If they told people to pick a number between 1 and 14 million, they wouldn't get many players," Cook says. "Mathematically, it's the same thing; psychologically, it looks quite different."

Actually, the odds are a little better for Maryland Lotto players because they get to pick two sets of numbers for a $1 Lotto ticket.

Roogow says lottery officials are doing focus group studies and are researching ways to try to make Lotto more attractive to players.

"I want people to have more chances to win and for them to win more often," Roogow says. "Not everyone can win the jackpot. I believe we need more mid-level and lower-tier prizes."

Roogow says he has no plans to scrap the game, even though sales have slid.

"There's no possibility we will be doing away with Lotto," he says. "People who play Lotto are very fond of the game."

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