Several people react to the state's plan to sell $30 scratchoff lottery tickets for a chance to win $2 million. (Algerina Perna, Baltmore Sun video)
Maryland Lottery regulators approved Thursday the launch of their most expensive ticket ever — a $30 scratch-off — following a record sales year in which players showed they were increasingly willing to pay more for a chance at a fortune.
The Lottery and Gaming Control Commission approved the new ticket, "$2,000,000 Fortune," on a voice vote at its monthly meeting. It will debut in the first quarter of next year.
The ticket's $2 million top prize will be a state high for instant tickets, also known as scratch-offs.
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-end tickets that offer much larger prizes.
The highest-priced ticket now sold in Maryland is $20, and the lowest is $1. But 17 states have tickets that cost at least $30, and Texas sells a $50 ticket.
"It is a trend in the industry and one in which we've seen positive results in other states," lottery Director Gordon Medenica said. "We want to get on that bandwagon."
Sales of $20 tickets in Maryland rose from $62.1 million in 2013 to $75.2 million in 2015, a 21 percent increase. Sales of $1 tickets were flat in the same period, and sales of $2 and $3 tickets declined.
Analysts said the highest-priced instant tickets — so called because players can find out immediately if they won — can be alluring. With names like "Your Fortune," "$1,000,000 Platinum Play" and "Blingo Bingo," the tickets are often wildly colorful and filled with dollar signs and exclamation points.
"For people who like instant gratification — who crave the immediate rush of learning if they won — the high price of the tickets is a price worth paying for the combination of instant gratification and the prospect of life-changing winnings," said George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
The scratch-offs have become a cash cow for the Maryland Lottery. Total lottery sales rose 8.2 percent to a record $1.9 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30. Sales of instant tickets increased by 12 percent to $611 million.
The state received $570 million from the lottery in the last fiscal year, and $510 million from casinos. The lottery is the fourth-largest source of revenue for the general fund, behind income, sales and corporate taxes.
The state usually offers between 50 and 60 instant ticket games for sale at any given time. Tickets are available in convenience stores, gas stations, diners and other retailers.
Instant tickets contain built-in advantages for players. While results vary from game to game, they offer relatively high average payouts — from about 59 percent of sales for a $1 ticket to as much as 78 percent for a $20 ticket.
That compares favorably to anticipated payouts of 50 percent for Powerball and Mega Millions, which hold regular drawings, and between 60 percent and 68 percent for Racetrax and Keno, according to state data obtained in a public records request.
The payout is the amount of money collected by the state that returns to players in the form of prizes.
The payout for the $30 ticket will be 79.6 percent, according to lottery officials.
Because the ticket has unusually large prizes, the state's profit margin on the game is expected to be lower than on other scratch-offs. But Medenica said Maryland anticipates making up the difference through healthy sales.
"As long as we think total profit dollars will increase, then it's worth it," he said.
Details of the $30 ticket were still being finalized, and the odds of winning the $2 million prize — or lesser prizes — weren't yet available. In Texas, the odds of winning the $50 ticket's top prize of $7.5 million are 1 in 1.2 million.
The lower-tier prizes account for most of the overall payout. But it's the big, splashy possibilities that often attract players.
"Big numbers bring out everyone," said Jeffrey Beck, a gambling and addictions counselor. "There's something about $2 million that has a magic feel to it."
Beck said the introduction of a $30 game poses new risks for problem gamblers.
The state says it discourages problem gambling through messaging on tickets, a graphic on the website of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, information on the monitors at retail locations around the state, and a telephone help line (1-800-GAMBLER).
At the Soda Pop Shop Mart, a Catonsville convenience store popular with lottery players, opinions about the new ticket were mixed.
The walls of the store are lined with bright Maryland Lottery logos. Players sit around a large, round table filling out tickets with pencils.
"We have a lot of people who don't do smaller than $20 or $10 tickets," said store owner Rajesh Patel. "People want to get big money."
But when regular player Keyana Griffin heard about a $30 ticket, she exhaled.
"That's a lot to lose."
Willie Wright agreed that $30 "is kind of steep."
"I'm retired." Wright said. "I've got a fixed income."
Medenica said he knows a $30 ticket isn't for everybody.
"That's the whole point of choice," he said. "We want a wide portfolio of games so we can attract players who have different allegiances to playing."
The notion of buying increasingly expensive tickets seems counterintuitive, said Robert Williams, a professor and gambling researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada.
"Every consumer wants the initial outlay to be as small as possible and the ultimate payoff to be as large as possible," Williams said.
But he said some people get excited about "the hoopla" associated with pricey games.
Last winter's $1.58 billion Powerball jackpot — the largest lottery prize in U.S. history — attracted enormous interest in the state. State retailers sold $73.2 million in tickets. Two of the top sellers were in the Bethesda area, which has one of the highest median household incomes in the state.
Maryland had three $1 million winners.
A Powerball ticket costs $2. The odds of winning the big Powerball jackpot were 1 in 292 million.
Given the steep odds of many lottery games, statistician Ronald Wasserstein said, the "smart play is not to spend too much money" on tickets.
"At best it is entertainment," said Wasserstein, executive director of the Virginia-based American Statistical Association. "At worst it is a cash sink."