Originally created 09/15/03

Mega Millions game, with promise of huge jackpots, disappointing so far



ATLANTA -- The whole point of the Mega Millions lottery was huge jackpots, headline jackpots, crowds-mobbing-the-gas-stations jackpots.

But more than a year after the multistate Mega Millions lottery was created, the top prizes haven't been the record-breakers organizers had hoped - leaving the 10 member states still waiting for a lottery windfall to cushion falling tax revenues.

You might call it a case of bad luck. The lottery grew out of the seven-state Big Game, which set an American record for a single jackpot when the lottery hit $363 million in 2000.

Thrilled by the crowds who bought Big Game tickets, lottery organizers made a plan. Make the odds a little longer - and, hey, they were bad to start with - and the jackpots could get even bigger, maybe topping $400 million. Lottery revenues would soar, too, because big jackpots inspire frenzied buying and first-time players.

"It's just not news anymore until the jackpot gets real high," said David Gale, director of the North American Association of State & Provincial Lotteries. "In the early '80s, everybody went crazy for a million dollars. Now people are used to hearing on the news, 'Tonight's jackpot, $5 million dollars.' No big deal."

So the Mega Millions drawings started in Atlanta in May 2002, with the seven original states joined by New York and Ohio. Washington joined last September. State budget writers were crossing their fingers for a jackpot so big people would buy Mega Millions tickets by the handful, giving states a windfall just as the tax rolls were wilting.

But the huge jackpots have yet to materialize, although statistics indicate it's only a matter of time. The biggest Mega Million jackpot so far is $180 million - a nice chunk of money, but not enough to have players skipping work to line up for lottery tickets.

Washington at first hoped for $110 million in Mega Millions sales for the first fiscal year, but sales were just $45.5 million.

"This is not working as originally projected," said Washington Lottery spokesman D. Eric Jones.

In Ohio, sales for its Super Lotto Plus state game fell by as much as 48 percent some months from the year before, largely because players opted for Mega Million tickets, which still weren't hot sellers. The state lotto drop-off was worse than organizers feared.

"We absolutely had a cannibalization to the in-state game," said Ohio Lottery spokeswoman Mardele Cohen. "It's been affected more so than we originally thought, because so far we haven't realized the jackpot potential."

Mega Millions officials brush off suggestions that the game is a bust. The big money's coming, they say, and states need to realize that sales will fluctuate greatly year by year depending on the size of Mega Millions prizes.

"The whole reason you join a multistate game is to have a big jackpot," said Mega Millions group president Penelope W. Kyle, director of the Virginia Lottery. "We haven't seen it yet, but we will get to those larger jackpots."

But when?

The main rival for Mega Millions, the 24-state Powerball game, has also tweaked its game to produce bigger jackpots. Powerball still hasn't matched the old Big Game record - the biggest Powerball jackpot was $315 million - but it's possible Powerball will grow to the $400 million range before Mega Millions will.

"It's the way the balls pop, so to speak," said Joe Mahoney, spokesman for the Des Moines, Iowa, lottery association that runs Powerball.

The Mega Millions group has reason to hope its fortunes improve. Texas will join by late fall, becoming the most populous state in a multi-state lottery. That means more players, faster jumps in the jackpot and maybe a record-breaking prize.

Texas is projecting sales of $100 million over the next two years.

"I was aware up front that Washington was not comfortable, that some states didn't meet their high expectation levels," said Texas Lottery Commission director Reagan Greer. "We felt like it would still be a positive thing overall for us."

Texas has proposed a small change to Mega Millions, giving it a "multiplier" feature similar to Powerball's. Players would be able to wager more than $1 on a ticket, with bigger wagers bringing multiplied winnings on lower-tier prizes. The Mega Millions states have yet to decide whether they like the idea, or whether Texas could run the multiplier on its own.

Still, the Mega Millions states can hardly wait for Texas to join the game.

"We will get to those larger jackpots quicker, and the quicker you can get there, the better off you are," Kyle said.

Until Mega Millions reaches that golden jackpot, member states are ratcheting down sales expectations and relying on old-fashioned state games and scratch-off tickets until the ship comes in. Every state queried said they have no doubt the payoff will be worth the wait.

"We still believe that jackpot is coming," Cohen said.

A look at the Mega Millions lottery game and its chief rival, Powerball

The following is a look at Mega Millions and its chief rival, Powerball.

MEGA MILLIONS:

Ten members: Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Virginia and Washington. (Texas will join in late 2003).

Started In: 2002

Record Jackpot: $180 million

POWERBALL:

Twenty-six members: Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., U.S. Virgin Islands.

Started In: 1992

Record Jackpot: $315 million

On the Net:

Mega Millions: http://www.megamillions.com

Multi-State Lottery Assoc. (Powerball): http://www.musl.com