Lotto Fever Hits as Powerball Jackpot Grows

With a larger jackpot, interest has grown in the lottery, despite the recession.

ByScott Mayerowitz and Nathalie Tadena
August 16, 2009, 1:17 PM

Aug. 19, 2009— -- The Powerball numbers have been chosen: 14, 24, 31, 43, 51 and 27.

Someone will walk away with $250 million. If not, there will be another drawing on Saturday.

Lottery officials across the country are seeing a nice bump in ticket sales these days, thanks to some eye-catching $200 million jackpots that have lured customers back after a recession-fueled sales dip tearly this year.

The Powerball lottery game, played in more than 30 states, now has a jackpot of $245 million ahead of Wednesday night's drawing. And the other big multistate lottery, Mega Millions, has an estimated jackpot of $207 million for Friday night's drawing.

Neither would be a record prize, but the eye-popping numbers are still a welcome sign to many, especially given a recession in which unemployment is at a 26-year high and stock portfolios remain way off their pre-recession highs.

Lottery tickets are a so-called disposable income product. In bad times -- or, curiously enough, times of high gas prices -- lottery sales will often slump. In many places, they did just that.

"We're fighting with other products on the market," said Jennifer Givner, a spokeswoman for the New York State Lottery, which did manage to eke out a profit this year.

Other states were not so lucky.

The Kansas Lottery reported a 2.6 percent drop in sales for the fiscal year that ended June 30. That translates to a $6 million decline in revenue. And in Oklahoma, sales are down about 2 percent from last year.

But with jackpots climbing over $200 million in both big multistate games, some have seen lottery lines swell with customers also shelling out for the smaller games.

Brian Rockey, a spokesman with the Nebraska Lottery, said that in recent weeks he has seen spike in Powerball ticket sales, as well as the other lotto offerings.

"That is normal in our experience. Jackpot-driven games like Powerball and our Nebraska Pick 5 game tend to buoy sales of our other three lotto games when their jackpots reach a certain level," Rockey said. "With Powerball, we see it start at about $100 million. Our research has found that about 30 percent of players wait to buy the game until the jackpot gets into the $70 to $80 million range."

Powerball Fever, Dreams of Being Rich

"Certainly whenever the jackpot is over $200 million, you see a giant spike in ticket sales," said Rebecca Paul Hargrove, president of the Tennessee Lottery and chairwoman of the Powerball group.

In Tennessee, she said, ticket sales are about five to six times higher than normal.

"While it's really exciting for players, it's really good news for all the good causes funded by the lottery," she said.

With such high jackpots, there is a lot of buzz at workplace watercoolers and office pools start up.

"It's a fun, benign way to dream about what you would do with a quarter-billion dollars," she said.

As chairwoman of the Powerball group she can't play any lottery games. But she can still dream.

"I would take my 10 best friends on a Mediterranean cruise," she said, adding that she would also pay off relatives' nursing and law school bills.

Most winners tend to take one big trip, buy their homes and then they say the best thing about winning is security for their children."

The economy has hurt lottery sales across the country. Some states have seen an outright decline, while other have seen less growth than expected.

"For the great majority of people, it's like any other product or service," said Doug Walker, a professor of economics at the College of Charleston who specializes in the economics of gambling. "When they're worried about paying bills, lottery tickets and gambling are pretty easy ways to cut back on spending."

While consumers in especially tough times may stray away from the chance to win a few thousand dollars in scratch-off lottery tickets, the huge Powerball jackpots may still be attractive.

"The potential winnings are so high, there's no other way your average person could get that much money that quickly," Walker said.

Though the odds of winning are close to zero, a Powerball ticket is still seen as a possible way to financial freedom. The majority of lottery-ticket buyers tend to come from lower-income backgrounds, Walker said.

Lottery, Powerball and Mega Millions Odds

For anybody out there looking to strike it rich, here is what you need to know: Powerball now has an estimated $250 million jackpot, with a $124.8 million lump sum value, for its drawing Wednesday. The odds of winning: 1 in 195,249,054.

There have now been 14 Powerball drawings without a jackpot winner. The current streak without a big winner started July 1 when the jackpot was $20 million.

To win the top jackpot, you need to pick the five "base" numbers -- those range from 1 to 59 -- and the Powerball, which is a number ranging from 1 to 39.

There are eight other ways to win, and those are set prizes, ranging from $3 for selecting the correct Powerball to $200,000 for picking the five base numbers. Tickets are $1.

And, in case you were wondering, the record Powerball jackpot was $365 million, won on Feb. 18, 2006, by workers at a ConAgra Food facility in Nebraska.

Mega Millions, which is played in 12 states, has an estimated $207 million jackpot, or a $130.1 million lump sum payment, for its drawing Friday. The odds of winning the jackpot are approximately one in 176 million. The odds of winning any of the Mega Millions prizes are approximately 1 in 40.

This jackpot has been growing since July 7, when Mega Millions had its most recent jackpot winner. The record Mega Millions jackpot was $390 million, won March 6, 2007.

With those odds, you might be better off putting that dollar into the stock market. Maybe.

What would you spend your lottery winnings on? Let us know in the comments section below.

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