Lured by high payouts, Marylanders turn $30 lottery ticket into top seller

The Lottery’s most expensive “scratch-off” ticket ever has turned into its newest cash cow — a $30 game showing Marylanders’ willingness to dig deeper than ever to dream of making an instant fortune.

A year after it was introduced, the ticket — physically larger than other scratch-offs and depicting its top prize in glittery gold lettering, “$2,000,000 Fortune!” — has become the state’s best seller.

“It did really, really well” in 2017, said lottery chief Gordon Medenica. “It was the top seller probably for 48 of the 52 weeks.”

It is so popular that Maryland is introducing another $30 ticket called “$2,000,000 Mega Bucks” on Feb. 26. Promotional posters for the new game — with “Win Big!” in oversized letters — are already up at gas stations and other outlets and are attracting the attention of players.

Thirty bucks may seem like a lot to spend on a ticket, but “I’m going to play the new one because all the big prizes will still be there at the beginning,” said Cliff Kidwell, a regular customer at the U.S. 40 BP station in Catonsville, which offers lottery players special parking, a smoking deck and a lounge with free coffee.

“You see a lot of people buying it,” said store co-owner Shawn Jamal, who expects interest to surge when the new ticket is released.

The $30 game offers a trade-off that lures many players. In exchange for paying 30 times the cost of the state’s cheapest ticket ($1), they receive better odds and higher payouts.

The payout is the amount of money collected by the state from sales that returns to players in the form of prizes. Scratch-off payouts range from 60 percent for $1 tickets and 72 percent for $5 tickets, to nearly 80 percent for the $30 game.

By offering an 80 percent payout, Maryland “appears to be adopting the Massachusetts model,” said Robert Williams, a professor and gambling researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.

“Massachusetts has historically always had the highest revenue from instant lotteries in the U.S., in large part because they have had a higher payback percentage than anywhere else,” Williams said. “Higher payback percentages produce more small wins and thereby encourage continued play, often by reinvesting the winnings. The end result is more overall money being spent.”

The probability of winning the $2 million top prize in Maryland’s $30 game is 1 in 783,272. But the chances of winning any prize on the ticket is 1 in 2.82 — better odds for players than in other instant games.

The $30 ticket offers prizes of $30, $40, $50, $100, $200, $500, $5,000, $50,000 and $2 million.

The Maryland Lottery began the game in February 2017. Two of the five $2 million prizes have not been won yet and, the lottery said, no date has been set for stopping sales.

“Rather, we will let sales dictate when we close it,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “If sales rapidly decline after we have launched the new one, we may consider closing it before all top prizes are claimed. But we will have to wait and see.”

At the U.S. 40 BP station, sales agent Geraldine Barnes said she routinely sees players win smaller prizes from the $30 ticket and immediately hand over their winnings to buy more tickets.

“If they win $30 or $40, they’ll buy another one because they think they’re going to win something big,” Barnes said.

That was the formula for an air traffic manager at BWI Marshall Airport who won $50,000 from a $30 ticket last July. His first ticket won him back his $30, “allowing him to purchase another ticket,” the lottery said in a post on its website. “The second ticket revealed a winning number that matched the $50,000 prize.”

The Glen Burnie man declined to be interviewed.

But experts say there is no winning formula in the long run. They say the $30 ticket may present players better chances than lower-priced games, but the odds are still with the lottery.

“I suppose at one level it is a better deal,” said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. “But depending on how often one plays, you are getting into amounts that can start to make a dent in an average family’s take-home income, potentially detracting from more important expenditures.”

Even at 80 percent, the $30 ticket pays out less than many casino games, said Ronald Wasserstein, executive director of the Virginia-based American Statistical Association. Many casinos average near or above 90 percent payouts on slot machines over a year.

“Perhaps because players win something once in every three plays on average, this is the enticement,” Wasserstein said of the $30 ticket. “Playing this game is still the equivalent of the following game: You give me $30, I give you $24. Repeat as often as you like.”

In launching the $30 ticket, lottery officials said they were eager to tap into a trend — evident in Maryland and other states — of many players bypassing $1 and $2 tickets in favor of higher-priced tickets offering much larger prizes.

At least 17 states have tickets costing $30 or more, and Texas sells a $50 scratch-off — with a $5 million prize.

Maryland generates about $2 billion a year from lottery sales. Coupled with its share of casino revenue, revenue from lottery games combines to be Maryland’s largest source of revenue behind income, sales and corporate taxes.

Instant tickets have become increasingly popular in Maryland, which also offers Powerball, Keno, Pick 3, Pick 4 and a variety of other games.

“People love the potential to win instantly, and they also love large jackpots,” Loewenstein said.

For the third straight year, sales of scratch-offs grew by double-digit rates in the fiscal year ending June 30. Such sales totaled $676.8 million, a 10.7 percent increase over 2016.

Besides the $30 scratch-offs, other top sellers include tickets with licensed game-show images such as Family Feud, and sports themes.

“The Ravens are great performers,” Medenica said. “We did a bunch of focus groups last fall and we asked people what kind of instant tickets do they remember. By far, head and shoulders above everything else, was Ravens instant tickets. It’s the value of the brand. It’s recognition.”

Instant tickets player Carol Pearson of Perryville won club-level Ravens season seats for the 2017 season with her husband, Steve.

“We usually buy the $5 Ravens ticket” because of loyalty to the team, she said. “We won club level in the very first row.”

But the $30 ticket?

“That one is a little too pricey,” she said.

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