The $400 million Powerball lottery drawing scheduled for Wednesday is on track to be the fourth largest jackpot in history and just the latest in a series of record-breaking prizes won in the last two years.
Lottery officials on Monday said if ticket sales continue to be strong, the jackpot could end up north of $500 million. And when a half-billion-dollar prize is on the line, everyone's imagination runs wild.
"I wish I had a better explanation, but when the game starts rolling the jackpots start growing. And when the numbers start to grow, people start to get excited," said Erica Palmisano, spokeswoman with the Maryland Lottery. "It used to be $100 million, now it's $200 million or $300 million. That's when people who aren't regular players start to play."
A bump in ticket prices and the number of players has helped make the Powerball lottery game one of the largest and most popular multistate games in the country. The Mega Millions lottery holds the top spot for largest jackpot of all time at $656 million. The winnings, awarded in March 2012, were divided between three primary ticket holders, including a trio of public school employees in Maryland who split their share.
In fact, the top three prizes of all time were won since the beginning of last year — with one of them being a Mega Millions purse and the other two being Powerball jackpots like Wednesday night's drawing.
Charles Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, explained that the Powerball game was redesigned in January 2012, when ticket prices were increased from $1 to $2.
"They're pretty much the same and we wanted to make them different," he explained. "It makes the average jackpot larger and grow faster. And a $2 price point nearly doubled the amount of money going into the jackpot prize pool and also let us create a second prize of $1 million in cash."
The change has created 750 millionaires in just over a year and a half, Mr. Strutt said.
Also expected to fuel the larger Powerball jackpots is California. The most populous state in the country only started selling Powerball tickets in April, but officials said they've already seen positive results in the change.
"We heard from a lot of our players that they wanted Powerball," said Alex Traverso, spokesman for the California lottery. "The large jackpots are the reason people play the game. One of the reasons we heard from players is why isn't California in Powerball. The timing worked out. We're in."
California is one of the most recent states to adopt the Powerball game, and it joins 42 other states, the District and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Forty-four states, the District and the Virgin Islands have Mega Millions.
Virginia Lottery Executive Director Paula Otto said there isn't really a rivalry between the two jackpots.
"We consider the two games as complements to each other," Ms. Otto said. "Most state lotteries like giving their players a choice."
While California might have only just started Powerball, Wyoming just this year passed a law allowing the state to develop a lottery.
Mark Macy, a Cheyenne, Wyo., lawyer and one of the new lottery commission members, said the decision to approve a lottery stemmed from a series of studies with the Wyoming legislature showing revenue was being lost to other states when residents drove across state lines to buy lottery tickets.
"We only have about 550,000 people, so it's not that much. But from my perspective, we have an ethical duty to try to start it up right and bring in revenues for the state that we haven't looked at before," he said.
On ticket sales alone in 2010, Maryland collected $502 million, according to data provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Virginia collected $430 million. Data was not available for the District. Across the country that year, $53 billion in tickets were sold, and about one-third, or $18 billion, was available for states.
But Alabama, Alaska, Hawaii, Mississippi, Nevada, and Utah remain holdouts on a state lottery.
"How a state feels about legalized gambling, that's the real question," said David Gale, executive director of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. "To answer that question, you have to go back and decide, 'OK, if we did that and it's generated so much revenue, how would that money be used? What's the value of having those services paid for by the lottery in exchange for bringing gambling, a lottery, into the state's borders?' "
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