Powerball fever is everywhere in Baltimore, with the jackpot at a record, $700 million. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
With the largest jackpot in U.S. lottery history surging to $900 million in advance of Saturday's Powerball drawing, it seems there is already a winner — the Maryland Lottery, which has seen flagging interest in the multistate game reversed practically overnight.
The agency is now imagining the tantalizing possibility of the first $1 billion jackpot, thanks in part to some tinkering with Powerball's odds last year by the game's managers.
Such a prize would create a happy problem for the agency. So unforeseen is a $1 billion award that many electronic billboards advertising Powerball in Maryland and other states aren't configured to display that number because "MILLION" is affixed to the signs.
"If the jackpot hits the $1 billion mark, it will be so big that it won't fit on a billboard," Gordon Medenica, director of the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency, said Friday.
State lottery officials said there is industry agreement that the signs, including one along Interstate 95 near the state lottery's Baltimore headquarters, would display "$999 million."
Such an issue seemed almost unimaginable just six months ago as lottery officials nationwide grappled with what to do about Powerball's declining sales. In Maryland, sales of the game with two weekly drawings dropped 15 percent in the last state fiscal year. The Maryland Lottery saw a profit of $36.9 million from Powerball on $89.5 million in sales in the year ended June 30.
Officials worried that the game was slipping because of competition from casinos and instant games and because of what the industry calls "jackpot fatigue." After years of headline-grabbing jackpots, many players seemed indifferent until the potential payout rose to astronomical levels.
The state's Powerball sales flattened out in this fiscal year, with sales from July through early December of $33.1 million, down 0.4 percent from the same period a year earlier. Meanwhile, instant games sales jumped 12.5 percent and overall lottery sales rose 5.2 percent to $779.3 million over the same period.
Instant games, or "scratch-offs," are the state lottery's hot ticket, partly because players don't need to wait for a drawing to learn if they've won.
"Powerball across the country peaked I believe two years ago — $6 billion in total sales — and went down to about $4 billion," Medenica said. "So it's basically down about a third at its peak. This run could change that. All bets are off now."
What changed is luck and the Powerball formula, called the "matrix," which was tweaked by the game's overseers in October to boost the chances of giant jackpots as well as to offer more wins of secondary prizes.
Under the change, the chances of winning the biggest prize went to 1 in 292 million from 1 in 175 million. But the odds of winning any prize were boosted from 1 in 32 to 1 in 25.
The change quickly yielded the intended result — a jackpot number approaching $1 billion that even casual players find difficult to ignore.
"At risk of cliche, billionaire is the new millionaire," said George Loewenstein, an economics and psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. "With all the attention to newly minted billionaires in our increasingly inequitable economy, a billion is what it takes to really grab people's attention, and to play into their deepest fantasies."
As recently as Dec. 28, daily Powerball sales in the state were as low as $284,097. As the jackpot mounted, daily sales rose to as high as $6.1 million on Wednesday.
In the current frenzy, a player arrived at lottery headquarters recently to claim his $50,000 Powerball prize and expressed disappointment to officials there.
"He wasn't happy because he wanted that big jackpot," said lottery spokeswoman Carole Everett.
The Powerball jackpot is won by matching all five white balls — there are 69 total — in any order and the red Powerball. The jackpot can be paid over 29 years or in a cash lump-sum payment. Lottery officials say most players use "quick pick," in which their numbers are randomly selected at their retailer.
The drawing is 10:59 on Saturday night.
If a Marylander wins the $800 million jackpot, the cash option would be $496 million and they would net $328.6 million after taxes. Matching at least three white ball numbers will also net prizes.
Since Maryland is one of only six states that allow winners to remain anonymous, the identity of a big Powerball winner in the state may not be known.
As the jackpot grew, Katie Nelson, 24 stopped by the Soda Pop Shop Mart in Catonsville, the state's top-selling lottery retailer, to pick up some scratch-offs well as some Powerball tickets for her father. "He usually plays once in a blue moon," she said of Powerball.
Nelson, a student who also works at Home Depot, said Thursday was her first time buying a Powerball ticket, right after the jackpot reached $700 million. It went to $900 million on Saturday.
"I just saw it on Facebook," she said.
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