The jackpot for Wednesday’s Powerball is estimated to be around $1.4 billion, the largest in U.S. history, and that amount is likely to grow by the time of the actual drawing. Here are some key questions and answers to check out before you buy your tickets.
How hard is it to hit the jackpot? Statisticians will tell you this, as will Powerball officials: If you place 69 white balls in one drum and 26 red balls in another, the odds of correctly predicting which five whites and one red will be drawn is 1 in 292.2 million.
How do those odds compare? Hey, it’s better than the odds of just your single name being chosen from a national phone book (if there were such a thing). Based on 2014 U.S. Census figures, those odds would be one in 317 million. And the odds of winning Powerball are about the same as a flipped coin landing 28 consecutive times on heads, a New York mathematician says. There’s a better chance a vending machine will kill you (one in 112 million) or, as the cliché goes, that you’ll be struck by lightning (1 in 1 million, but somewhat higher in Florida).
Sure, everyone is playing Powerball this week, but how’s it doing overall? The game is in a decline. In Florida, for example, ticket sales were $654 million in 2012-13, then $459 million in 2013-14, then $375 million in 2014-15. That’s a 42 percent decline; nationally, it’s down about 30 percent over that span.
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Why is that? First off is what experts call “jackpot fatigue.” It takes larger and larger jackpots to generate interest. Look at it this way: Will TV stations and occasional Powerball players flood convenience stores the next time the jackpot hits, say, only $500 million? Also, people who need instant gratification and can’t wait for the twice-weekly drawings can buy scratch-off tickets.
How did the jackpot get so big? To counter the decline in ticket sales, they made the game more exciting by making it harder to hit the jackpot — meaning more rollovers and much bigger jackpots. On Oct. 7, 2015, they added more 10 white balls and subtracted nine red balls to make the odds of winning the big jackpot soar — from the previous 1 in 175 million to the current 1 in 292 million. They also upped the payouts for lesser prizes, but that headline got lost.
Any tips? Not for winning, but for getting more cash if you do win. Most people are inclined to play birthdays and anniversaries, so the numbers 1 through 31 are played more often. So if you play those lower numbers and a jackpot hits, you’re more likely to share it. It’s not surprising no one won Saturday night: Three of the five white numbers were over 31.
Does Powerball help the state? While Powerball is a national game, revenues from ticket sales stay in Florida. Powerball pulls 50 percent for prizes, so every time you buy those $2 tickets, a buck goes into Florida’s education fund. Parents of high school graduates since 1997 can thank the lottery for those Bright Futures college scholarships.
How big a portion of state lottery play is Powerball? About 7 percent. Scratch-offs comprised about 66 percent — and growing — of Florida Lottery’s $5.58 billion business in 2014-15. Powerball, Florida Lotto, Fantasy 5, Play 4 and Cash 3 each run 5 to 7 percent.
Of the 14 Powerball winners last year, two were from Florida. Tell me about them. Well, actually one and a half. Orencia Barzey of Lauderhill won $80 million on June 20 from a Plantation convenience store; an $80 million winning ticket was also sold in McDavid, a Pensacola “suburb” on the state border with Alabama (which doesn’t have Powerball). Alice Dawson, from Frisco City, Alabama, won the loot.
How long has Powerball been around? Powerball began in 1992 as a remake of Lotto America. Florida got on board Jan. 4, 2009. We have status as home to the largest single winner: on May 18, 2013, Gloria C. MacKenzie hit for $595.5 million via a ticket drawn at a Publix supermarket in Zephyrhills. MacKenzie, 84, chose the $370 million lump sum instead of the long-term annuity.
I tried to get the results online Saturday night and FloridaLottery.com and Powerball.com moved like snails. Advice? Try usamega.com, says Todd Northrop, managing editor of LotteryPost.com. State lottery websites are normally brought to a standstill during busy periods, while USA Mega normally remains responsive, he says.
I know the odds of the jackpot are approximately 1 in 292 million. Can’t I win just a little loot? The odds of winning any of the Powerball prizes are approximately 1 in 24. Players win $4 even if they just match the Powerball number. They get $50,000 for four white balls and the Powerball, or if you hit the five white balls but not the red Powerball, you get a $1 million “consolation” prize.
Couldn’t I just buy every ticket combination? It doesn’t make financial sense. To cover the 292.2 million possibilities, you’d need $584.4 million (it’s $2 per ticket) to dead-solid guarantee a winner. (In horse racing, they’d call it boxing the field.) But if there’s only one other winner, you’re splitting that $1.4 billion. And if there’s two or more others, you’d stand to lose hundreds of millions. Also note that that $1.4 billion is based on a 29-year annuity. A lump sum is about two-thirds that amount. You’d also be taxed on your winnings but you’d be able to deduct your losing tickets.
Nick Sortal’s casino gambling column debuts Friday in The Miami Herald’s Weekend section. Get daily gambling news at his site, SouthFloridaGambling.com.