The digital sign still flashes “POWERBALL” and “MEGA MILLIONS” in splashy, gold and red lettering at the BP station on U.S. 40 in Catonsville, one of the Maryland Lottery’s top retailers.
But interest has slipped from mega to meager in the two national games, which once produced frenzied sales. Jackpots once topping $1 billion have tumbled during the coronavirus pandemic, and the public has become numb to what once seemed to be astonishingly large prizes.
Irving Redditt, 63, of Baltimore, bought Powerball and Mega Millions tickets recently at the gas station, which is decorated with colorful lottery advertisements, purple Baltimore Ravens paraphernalia and a sign reading “Live the life you’ve imagined.”
But the retiree seemed more interested in a variety of other lottery offerings and didn’t plan to watch the televised Powerball and Mega Millions drawings — each held twice a week at 11 p.m. — to find out whether he won.
“I’d be asleep that time of day anyway,” he said. “Surprise me.”
The jackpots for the drawings that week were $179 million for Powerball and $188 million for Mega Millions.
Faced with declining sales, the multistate games’ managers scaled back the jackpots in April as the first wave of the pandemic worsened and many states and cities asked residents to stay at home.
While the current jackpots are hardly puny, they pale in comparison to the $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot in 2016 and $1.5 billion Mega Millions top prize in 2018.
Those record-high hauls led many Marylanders to line up at convenience stores and gas stations trying to defy unfathomable odds by buying $2 tickets, sometimes in bulk. No Marylander ended up sharing in either of the gargantuan jackpots.
“That was the craziest time,” said Khawaja Jamal, manager of the BP station, which lures players by offering them special parking, a smoking deck and a lounge in which regulars chat like people at a neighborhood bar or barbershop.
But the excitement abated after the monster jackpots of several years ago, and Powerball and Mega Millions sales began to decline in Maryland and other states. The games — in which players pick or are randomly given numbers to try to match those selected in a drawing — are available in 45 states and Washington, D.C.
He said the pandemic may be disproportionately affecting those games because “they tend to be very social games. You get the office pools, you get people talking about it, you get the media talking about it. To the extent that people just haven’t had the opportunity to be together … that may be part of it.”
Lottery sales are important to the state. Revenue from lottery games and casino taxes combine to be Maryland’s largest source of revenue behind income, sales and corporate taxes. The state collected $1.1 billion from lottery games and casinos during the fiscal year that ended June 30.
Maryland’s other lottery games — including Pick 3, Pick 4, Racetrax and Keno — are faring well. Analysts say the games have benefited because the pandemic has shut down movie theaters, sporting events and — for a time — casinos that were popular outlets for discretionary spending.
Overall lottery sales are up 15.8% compared with the same period a year earlier, Medenica told the Lottery and Gaming Commission at its monthly meeting Nov. 19.
“Business is still amazingly strong,” Medenica said.
But he added: “We continue to be soft in the national jackpot games, Mega Millions and Powerball.”
The game’s managers, he said, are “working intensely on evaluating what is going on with those games and how to perhaps make some changes that will revive their trends.”
Before the pandemic, Powerball and Mega Millions had guaranteed starting jackpots of $40 million, as well as minimum increases for successive drawings when — as frequently happens — nobody wins the big prize. Powerball previously raised the jackpot a minimum of $10 million between drawings, and Mega Millions increased it by at least $5 million.
The changes in April included eliminating minimum amounts for starting jackpots and later bumps to ensure that the jackpots and lower-tier prizes would continue to be fully funded by ticket sales. Since then, jackpots have been starting at $20 million, but that figure — as well as the rollover amounts — is flexible based on sales and interest rates.
“Sales are just not accelerating like they used to, and the players just don’t get excited by — can you imagine? — only $100 million.”
Maryland Lottery director Gordon Medenica
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Both games are assessing how to turn their fortunes around.
The Powerball Product Group, which oversees the game, said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun that it “has been researching numerous options to address product relevancy, jackpot stagnation, and new options to the existing game.”
Mega Millions, too, is considering changes, but Medenica — who is also a top official on the consortium governing the game — said it was premature to discuss what might be done.
In the meantime, “you don’t see that many people playing,” said Jamal, the BP station manager. “When the jackpot is like $400 million or $500 million, they tend to play more.”
Mega Millions had a $410 million winner from Arizona in June, but the prize hasn’t approached that level since. Powerball hasn’t come close to $400 million since a Florida winner claimed a $394 million jackpot in January.
Without those enticing draws, regular lottery players such as Craig Whittington, 62, of Catonsville, said they may play on a whim, but aren’t habitual Mega Millions or Powerball customers.
Whittington said he’ll buy a ticket only if he happens to notice a jackpot that “looks good.” Otherwise, he is content to stick with the Maryland Lottery’s Pick 3 and Pick 4, which have daily drawings but much smaller payouts than the bigger games.
The soaring jackpots of several years ago were not happenstance.
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In 2015, the Powerball formula was tweaked 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 from 1 in 175 million to 1 in 292 million. But the odds of winning any prize were boosted.
Mega Millions similarly elevated starting jackpots in 2017 from $15 million to $40 million, and the pot was designed to increase more quickly if nobody hit. Also, players were given better odds of winning a second-tier prize of $1 million.
Each game has nine prize levels ranging from a few dollars up to the jackpot.
The Maryland Lottery oversees dozens of games, including a variety of increasingly popular “scratch-off” tickets from $1 to $30.
While Powerball and Mega Millions aren’t among the state lottery’s sales leaders, they command attention because they are iconic.