The numbers behind Mega Millions: Why lottery jackpots are getting bigger

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October 21, 2018 11:00 am Published by

Lottery fever is burning through the U.S. as people in 44 states, Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands scramble to buy tickets for the big bucks of a lifetime — now a $1.6 billion Mega Millions jackpot.

And there were no winners in Saturday’s $476.7 million Powerball jackpot, ratcheting up the next prize Wednesday to $620 million, the lottery said.

But Mega Millions is eclipsing even that eye-opening number. Scores of potential One Percenters have been lining up at mini-marts and convenience stores in the past week to test their luck at guessing the winning six-number combination for the Mega Millions prize that seems to balloon after every “no winner” announcement. 

Sales figures are hard to exaggerate. One local Nebraska newspaper reports that tickets sold at a rate of about 400 per minute on Friday. And in California, the lottery Thursday sold 5.7 million during the first half of the day.

If it seems that the lines have gotten longer with every drawing or that jackpots have exploded in growth lately – that’s because they have.

With the next Mega Millions drawing two days away (Tuesday at 11 p.m. ET), here is a look behind the numbers. 

Why have jackpots gotten so big?

It was all by design.

Lottery officials began tinkering with the odds in 2015 to lessen the chance of winning a jackpot, which in turn increased the opportunity for top prizes to reach exorbitant levels. As the money grows to those high figures, an increasing number of skeptics and first-time players are swayed to get in on the action.

Powerball was the first to try out the new formula when it changed the potential number of combinations three years ago. That change reduced the odds of winning from one in 175 to one in 292 million.

Mega Millions, which has been around since 1996, followed suit with a similar move in October 2017, worsening the odds from one in 259 million to one in 302 million. Mega Millions also doubled the entry ticket price from $1 to $2 and has seen three of its six-ever largest payouts since making the changes.

As the pot grows in size, people are more likely to buy a greater number of tickets. The process continues semi-weekly until one or more people guess the winning combination.

“I’m surprised that no one won the last round honestly,” said Chris O’Byrne, a professor of management information at San Diego State University, referring to Friday’s drawing.

“There were over 800 million ticket purchases to make the pot over $1.6 billion. It’s pretty shocking that not one person had the exact combination.”

O’Byrne said he thinks Tuesday’s drawing will almost certainly yield one or more winners.

How can I increase my odds of winning?

You could buy a ticket with each of the possible six-number combinations. That is, if you can afford it.

“If you wanted to guarantee yourself a win it would cost you around $600 million bucks,” O’Byrne said. “Even if you won you could have to split the winnings with someone else who guesses the right numbers. So, good luck doing that.”

Does that mean I shouldn’t play?

It depends on what you’re playing for, O’Byrne said. “You have a better shot of flipping a coin and having it land on heads 28 times in a row than to win.”

But if you are getting something out of it – even if it’s just a fantasy – that might be reason enough to join those long lines.

“I’m investing $2 in the ability to dream about how I would spend the money until Tuesday night. It’s a cheap price to pay for that,” O’Byrne said. “Also, the potential return on your $2 at this point is better than when the lottery started off at $40 million. So there’s that.” 

Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown

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