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Mega Millions jackpot likely to surpass $600 million

5:26 AM, Dec 17, 2013   |    comments
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A salesman holds Mega Millions lottery tickets at a retailer in Decatur, Ga., on Monday. (Photo: EPA)

Tuesday night's Mega Millions jackpot, which at $586 million is already the fourth-largest ever, could be sweetened to $625 million or more Tuesday morning.

With tickets estimated to sell at a rate of 11 million an hour in 43 states, lottery officials will gauge sales to determine whether to increase the jackpot. Typically, large jackpots like this one attract a media-fueled frenzy in the hours leading up to the 11 p.m. drawing, says Virginia state lottery director Paul Otto, lead director for the Multi State Lottery Association.

The lump-sum payoff is worth a pre-tax $316 million.

A record $656 million Mega Millions jackpot in 2012 sold 26 million tickets an hour the day of the March 30 drawing, says MSLA director Chuck Strutt.

A $1 billion Christmas Eve jackpot isn't far-fetched if there's no winner tonight or Friday night. The jackpot - up more than $160 million since hitting $425 million Dec. 13 - has rolled over 21 straight times since Oct. 4, when it was a relatively pocket-change $12 million.

"If this hits a record jackpot, all bets are off," Strutt says.

Mega Millions jackpots are likely to continue swelling because lottery officials boosted their potential payouts.

Originally, customers chose five numbers from 1-56 and one number from 1-46. The new structure has customers choosing five numbers from 1-75 and one number from 1-15. The change raised the odds of hitting a winner to 1 in 259 million from 1 in 176 million.

As jackpots get larger, the number of people who don't ordinarily play join the mix. In Virginia, for example, about one-third of the state's adults have played the lottery at least once in the past month. Participation grows when there is a "phenomenal jackpot," Otto says. Strutt notes that in some states, a whopping 70% of sales occur the day of a drawing.

"Lotto players are procrastinators. They tend to buy on the day of the draw," Otto says.

Coming so close to Christmas, its unclear whether the holiday is spurring those looking for stocking stuffers and office exchange gifts or muting ticket sales.

"We're not certain what that will mean for consumer spending habits - if people are holding back on some dollars they might've spent on the lottery because they have to buy more holidays gifts, or a lot of people will be out and about and help sales," Otto says. "It could go either way."

An estimated 65% to 70% of potential numbers have already been selected.

Longtime lottery watcher Gail Howard says that with the odds of hitting the jackpot so small, ticket buyers should buy no more than one.

"Your odds are not going to improve that much if you buy 1 ticket or 1,000,'' says Howard, author of Lottery Master Guide. "I also think you should pick your own numbers rather than let a (point of sale) computer do it."

Contributing: The Associated Press

Jolie Lee and Gary Strauss , USA TODAY

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