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Mega Millions Monday: Back to Work For All But a Few

11:20 AM, Apr 2, 2012   |    comments
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Well, that was a nice dream. Now back to work.

Friday's record-breaking $656 million Mega Millions lottery prize went to three exceedingly lucky winners in three states, and just about everyone else retains worthless slips of bar-coded paper and a kind of never-again embarrassment. The odds of winning were no less astronomical than with most lotteries, but the ripples of disappointment reach farther after millions of non-habitual players unsuccessfully tried their luck.

How steep were the odds? About 1 in 176 million. But the jackpot spoke for itself: By Friday night, after it'd grown for more than nine weeks, Americans had spent nearly $1.5 billion on Mega Millions tickets - the equivalent of nearly $5 for every man, woman and child in the USA. They spent more than $429 million on Friday alone.

Three players - so far unnamed - matched all six numbers, entitling them to a one-third share of the $656 million prize.

There were big consolation prizes: Lottery officials said 161 ticket holders won $250,000 apiece by matching the first five numbers, and 897 won $10,000 apiece by matching four numbers plus the stand-alone Mega Ball.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of disappointed ticket holders.

Could Monday morning's Mega Letdown have an effect on lottery sales and the programs they fund? Tuesday's drawing stands at $12 million - after last weekend, a lot of Americans may say "a mere $12 million." Has the huge jackpot recalibrated our expectations? Will we even notice the next one?

What happens after $656 million?

That question is on Michael Jones' mind. He's superintendent of the Illinois Lottery. One of the three winning tickets came from a convenience store in Red Bud, Ill., south of Springfield. He says the lottery was "invisible" to many Americans until last week. "We were irrelevant to them until the size of the prize made us relevant."

Although the prize certainly got non-players' attention, Jones says, he wonders whether future lotteries might need a $100 million "trigger" to maintain sales. About 80% of people in Illinois approve of the lottery, he says, but only 9% to 12% regularly buy tickets. Nearly 80% polled recently agreed with the phrase "The lottery is not for people like me."

He says he's banking on a proven way to keep people's interest: reminding them what the lottery proceeds buy. In Illinois' case, special lotteries fund veterans' care, multiple sclerosis and breast cancer research, and AIDS awareness.

"You just continue the educational part, making the lottery relevant to the great mass of people," he says, "because the great mass of people support it."

John Mikesell, a University of Indiana economist, is doubtful that there will be a "negative hangover effect" on lottery ticket purchases. "Regular players - and there are lots of them - will continue their regular play patterns," he says. "They were playing back before the big jackpot, after all, so why would they change?"

He points out that regular players' losing purchases are "how the jackpot got to be so big - they played and lost and what they lost added up into the big jackpot."

Mikesell suggests that occasional players won't pay much attention to the lottery again until jackpots rise to perhaps $350 million or $400 million but that future jackpots don't need to exceed last Friday's. The $656 million prize wouldn't make $400 million "less eye-popping in the future."

USA Today

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