Mega-jackpots are likely to mean the end of Lotto

Game's sales dip 5% in fiscal year

replacement possible by January

August 04, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,SUN STAFF

A million bucks doesn't buy dreams like it used to.

The first Maryland lottery game to offer $1 million prizes seems likely to become extinct, a victim of players who opt to gamble instead on mega-jackpots.

Introduced in November 1983 to help bail out financially strapped localities such as Prince George's County and Baltimore, Maryland Lotto -- once the lottery's flagship game -- is showing its age, according to state officials.

In the past fiscal year, Maryland Lotto sales dropped 5 percent while every other game posted gains, according to the latest figures.

Much like lottery games around the nation, Maryland Lotto's typical jackpots of a few million dollars have been dwarfed by the multistate game, Mega Millions, which starts at $12 million and often grows beyond $100 million.

"The current Lotto game, as it is currently structured, could possibly be phased out with another game," said Maryland Lottery Director Buddy Roogow.

He added: "We'll have to try something new and more exciting, and [a game] that is more player-friendly and means more winners."

To win the Lotto jackpot, players must match all six numbers drawn from 1 to 49, with jackpots rolling over from one drawing to the next. In its 22 years, Lotto has had 359 jackpot winners; the largest was $24 million in March 2001. Matching fewer numbers on the tickets -- $1 buys two chances -- wins smaller prizes ranging from $2 to $1,500.

For the 12-state Mega Millions game, players purchase $1 tickets and choose five numbers between 1 and 56 and one Gold Mega Ball number between 1 and 46. The richest jackpot reached an annuity value of $363 million in 2000. Lesser prizes for matching fewer numbers range from $250,000 to $2 for each drawing.

Odds of winning the Lotto jackpot are 1 in 26.8 million, compared with the Mega Millions odds of 1 in 175 million. Since Mega Millions started, Maryland has sold nine winning jackpot tickets; the largest was $183 million in June 2003.

Though players are much less likely to win Mega Millions than Maryland Lotto, many have been lured by the prospect of larger jackpots -- a trend evident to many lottery merchants.

Matt Owens, an attendant at the Canton Market convenience store on Boston Street, said Mega Millions drawings days, Tuesday and Friday, are his busiest.

"They really don't care about the odds, it's about the money," he said of the players.

At the Liquor Lady in Perry Hall, where the winning Lotto ticket for the June 11 jackpot was purchased, a white sign reading, "We Sold A $1.1 Million Lotto Ticket," hangs behind the pink lottery machine where store owner Bhupendra Patel stands.

Patel said more people are buying Lotto tickets because of the sign. "Wow, somebody won here," he said customers typically say.

But, Patel said, more people continue to purchase Mega Millions tickets over Lotto because of the jackpots.

Still, some Lotto players say they can't give up their habit.

Vernon Adams, 81, of Perry Hall, said that playing both multimillion-dollar games is routine. Adams has been playing each game since its inception and has a simple technique when he fills out a playslip -- he uses a few birthdates.

Maryland's declining Lotto sales follow the trend of other states involved in multistate jackpot games such as Mega Millions and Powerball.

"There have been some states who have seen enough erosion in their local games that they have moved to a multistate game exclusively," said Edward J. Stanek, chairman of the International Lottery Alliance and head of the Iowa lottery.

Stanek said that as more states consolidate with large jackpots, the single-state lottery games will be narrowed to "a particular market interest."

In Pennsylvania, the state lottery agency shifted its games after joining Powerball in 2002 and ending its equivalent of Maryland's Lotto.

Stephanie Weyant, a Pennsylvania Lottery spokeswoman, said the lottery focusing on the people who want more chances to win smaller prizes.

"Now, none of the current games are intended to compete with Powerball because they can't," Weyant said. "The lottery games today are to appeal to different players who have different niches."

Tentatively, Roogow said, a replacement for the Lotto would not consist of a jackpot, rather a game with more chances at winning smaller prizes. The game could start as early as January, he said.

Continuing to increase lottery sales is particularly important, according to Maryland lottery officials, because the revenue contributes so many dollars to the state's general fund to support such services as education and public health and safety. The lottery provided $477 million in revenue to Maryland in the past fiscal year, almost a $19 million increase over the previous year.

For Suzanne Feltz, 38, of Essex, her day is not complete without stopping at the Liquor Lady in Perry Hall. Feltz plays both multimillion-dollar games and a few scratch-offs. She said she buys more tickets based on the amount of the jackpot, which she agrees is usually larger with Mega Millions.

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