A half-billion-dollars can buy 23 million Christmas trees, 1.5 million iPads, or fund the building of a third shopping center at Tysons Corner — all it takes is six numbers and a lot of luck.
Lottery officials on Tuesday raised the Mega Millions jackpot to $636 million — the fourth-largest jackpot of all time — but with a day of sales before the drawing and both lottery veterans and holiday hopefuls flocking to ticket counters, what happens next is anyone’s guess.
“We’ve never had a jackpot over a half-billion dollars the week before Christmas,” said Paula Otto, Virginia Lottery executive director and lead director of the Mega Millions Consortium. “We’re not sure if all the holiday shoppers will help sales or if they’ll be more focused on getting final gifts. It could go either way. But being right before the holiday we think is a good thing.”
Judging by the long line at the D.C. Lottery site in Union Station, Ms. Otto’s sentiments are shared by many people.
“I’d buy a sports team, probably a hockey team because I’m a big hockey fan,” said Nick Desloge, 25, as he reviewed his tickets before putting them in his wallet. “I’d buy a few houses, a share of a plane, and also give money to my family members who want to go to college.”
The lump sum cash option is $341.2 million after taxes, though that number could shrink if more than one person matches all five numbers and the golden Mega Ball.
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If no one hits the jackpot Tuesday, the prize for Friday’s drawing will be $950 million with a $509.6 million cash option, lottery officials said.
“We are hearing people talk about the holidays and how the holidays would be even better if they won,” Maryland Lottery spokeswoman Erica Palmisano said. “People are definitely getting excited.”
As they waited for their train back home to Delaware, Joe Bea, 64, his wife, Ursula Bea, 66, and brother-in-law Richard Bea, said they purchased tickets with the hope of being able to quit their jobs and travel.
“My first phone call would be to my boss,” Richard Bea, 55, said with a laugh. “But no one would know about this until after the new year.”
“I’d like to travel,” Joe Bea said, his wife nodding her head in agreement.
“I don’t think I’d buy a house,” she added. “Everywhere I went I’d just rent the nicest place to stay.”
Ms. Otto said that for Friday night’s drawing, in which the jackpot rolled over to today, about 50 percent of the roughly 256 million combinations were played, meaning “it will probably be 65 to 70 percent, or it could be higher.”
“We don’t know for sure until the sales close,” she added.
The Mega Millions drawing is one of two large multistate lotteries. It’s played in 43 states, along with the District and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The other lottery is Powerball, and both drawings have in recent years rolled over historic jackpot prizes.
The largest jackpot in history was the $656 million Mega Millions prize awarded in March 2012. The jackpot was divided between three primary ticket holders, including a trio of public school employees in Maryland who split their share.
The top five jackpots in U.S. history have all been pulled since that record drawing, something lottery officials attribute to the changes in the Powerball and Mega Millions games.
Lottery officials said the Powerball jackpot has ballooned in part because of a ticket price increase from $1 to $2 in January 2012.
In late October, officials adjusted the Mega Millions numbers available for the five white balls and the one Mega Ball. The minimum jackpot also increased from $12 million to $15 million. The changes kept the $1 ticket price the same but also made the odds longer for hitting the full jackpot.
The drawing for the current jackpot first rolled on Oct. 4 and steadily increased until it made headlines this past weekend when it neared a half-billion dollars.
“We didn’t see this excitement for Mega Millions until $400 million,” D.C. Lottery Executive Director Buddy Roogow said. Lottery officials said it was only a few years ago that people got excited for $150 million jackpots.
Charles Strutt, executive director of the Multi-State Lottery Association, said the trend is called “jackpot fatigue” and has been around for two decades.
“Part of the fatigue is certainly due to ever-increasing jackpots and part of it is due to public attitudes about what it takes to be wealthy,” Mr. Strutt said. “Lotteries are considering other ways to capture consumer interest for the big jackpot games. At the jackpot levels the Powerball and Mega Millions often reach today, it becomes even more important to find new ways to attract the attention of consumers.”
The half-billion dollar prize is exactly what enticed D.C. resident Letitia DeShields to buy her first lottery ticket.
Walking out of the Union Station store, the 59-year-old said she shelled out a few bucks because of the jackpot size and said she hoped she was a winner.
“I would travel to Antigua and Anguilla,” she said dreamily. “I’d probably buy a house there.”
Mr. Roogow said lottery officials expect ticket buyers like Ms. DeShields to play the game when there’s an enormous jackpot, however, they were seeing a drop overall in the number of tickets bought by habitual lottery players.
“They’re paying $2, $3, $4 and not buying $10, $20 or $30,” he said. “But people who don’t normally play everyone wants a piece of the fantasy.”