Millions seeking Mega Millions

$540 million jackpot lures new players to lottery

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Susan Wagner of Friendship had never bought a Mega Millions ticket before. But tonight's record $540 million jackpot proved to be too tantalizing.

"I saw it on the news, and I thought, 'I have to play. I have to take a chance.' Why not?" she said after purchasing her single ticket Thursday at Tobacco Outlet on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield.

She is not alone. Lottery dealers throughout Pennsylvania -- and in 41 other states -- have seen ticket sales skyrocket and anticipate long lines today as people become players with hopes of striking it rich.

"It's going to sound corny, but I could do a whole lot of good with that money," said Ms. Wagner, a sculptor who dreams of owning her own foundry. "My family, friends. But I'm not lucky. I went to the casino and lost $6, and I'm done. I'm not a gambler. I work hard for that money."

Because it was her first time purchasing a Mega Millions ticket, Ms. Wagner had to have the rules -- five numbers between 1 and 56, with a Megaball between 1 and 46 -- explained to her.

While it might sound simple enough, the odds of winning the jackpot are against you -- to the tune of 1-in-175,711,536.

The fact is, there hasn't been a Mega Millions jackpot-winning ticket sold in Pennsylvania since the state joined the game in January 2010. That's 786 days -- two years and two months -- without a big winner.

Contrast that with the Powerball, which produced a state jackpot winner within 77 days of Pennsylvania joining in September 2002.

Part of the reason for the disparity could be in the popularity of the two games.

Amy Ford, who sells tickets at Tobacco Beer Outlet on McKnight Road in Ross, said she noticed a dramatic drop in the number of Powerball players when the cost of a ticket doubled to $2 in January.

"I think a lot of people thought they were getting ripped off," she said. "Mega Millions hasn't been real popular before, but now that it's up there, it's selling a lot. Things change."

Stephen Boyan, manager of Tobacco Outlet in Bloomfield, said most of his customers are regulars, who tend to stick with the same games -- and even the same lucky numbers -- every time they stop in. Mega Millions hadn't really caught on, he said, until this week, when his lottery sales jumped almost 50 percent.

"Monday was really busy for Tuesday's drawing. And then nobody hit," he said. "And I'm sure it'll probably be bigger [today]. It really wasn't played as much until it got big."

Mr. Boyan's customers usually bought just a ticket or two, sometimes five. But then there's the man who purchases $200 in one lump, a block of tickets for a collection of office-workers pooling their money in hopes of increasing their chances.

A group of people involved in a local baseball league bought $800 in tickets, he said.

As always, lottery officials caution against buying too many tickets, even if proceeds do benefit the state's senior residents.

"It's fun to think about what you would do if you win," said Allison Roberts, a spokeswoman at state lottery headquarters near Harrisburg. "But we want to make sure all of our players are playing within their means."

Ms. Roberts said that not having had a jackpot winner doesn't mean Pennsylvania has been a loser in the game.

"Since we joined, Mega Millions has generated $260 million in sales and $80 million for seniors," she said. "And so far this year, there have been 11 tickets sold that won the $250,000 second-tier prize, which means they had the first five numbers but not the Megaball."

A Pennsylvania player also won $1 million by having the first five numbers and the Megaplier, a multiplier that costs an extra dollar.

Ms. Ford said selling the tickets can be tiring because when the lines are long there's no break. But most of the buyers are friendly enough.

"Customers always tell me that if they win, they'll split it with me," she said. "But I know that if they win, I'll never see them again."

More Mega Millions facts: The annuity is $540 million (26 payments over 25 years), while the cash option is a mere $389.8 million. The state keeps 25 percent for federal withholding, but there are no state or local taxes on lottery winnings. Sales stop at 9:59 p.m.; the drawing is at 11.

Dan Majors: or 412-263-1456.


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