Historic prize renews focus on lottery's future

The historic Powerball prize claimed by a Massachusetts woman this week focused new attention on the state lottery, a vital, if not always well understood, cog in state and local government.

Lottery officials were beaming Thursday when Mavis Wanczyk, a 53-year-old hospital worker from Chicopee, emerged as the sole winner of the $758 million jackpot — the largest ever won with a single ticket. She opted for a lump sum over a gradual payout and took home some $336 million, after taxes.

Officials apologized for initially reporting the ticket had been bought in Watertown.

By most accounts, Massachusetts has operated one of the country's most successful state lotteries, yet it faces a number of future challenges, including a decision on whether to allow its games to be played online.

A closer look:



Since its inception in 1972, the lottery has sold $110 billion in tickets, awarded $77 billion in prizes and distributed $25 billion in funding to cities and towns, according to state officials.

Lottery revenues, in fact, are the largest source of unrestricted municipal aid in Massachusetts — cash that local officials are free to put toward anything from playgrounds to potholes.

In fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, the lottery exceeded $1 billion in net profits for the first time.

Total lottery sales actually slipped about $140 million from the previous fiscal year, though still topped $5 billion for the third straight year.

Massachusetts has long boasted of having the highest percentage prize payout of any state lottery. That figure was 72 percent in fiscal 2017, when nearly $3.7 billion in prizes were handed out.

By trimming administrative costs 5 percent, lottery officials said they were able to boost profits and keep payouts high despite the drop in sales. Democratic state Treasurer Deb Goldberg — whose office oversees the lottery — compared that to "squeezing every last juice out of the lemon."



Excitement around huge jackpots, such as the one this past week, clearly help the lottery's bottom line.

Retailers sold more than $13 million in Powerball tickets ahead of Wednesday's multi-state drawing.

Two massive Powerball jackpots in the 2016 fiscal year generated a combined $56.8 million in sales.

In fiscal 2017, without a blockbuster drawing, total Powerball sales fell $47.2 million, officials noted.



You can buy most things online these days, but not Massachusetts lottery tickets.

Whether that changes anytime soon remains to be seen.

Goldberg has filed a bill that would permit the Massachusetts Lottery Commission to conduct some of its games online or through mobile applications. Lawmakers have yet to hold a public hearing on the measure.

Similar legislation got a favorable nod last session from the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, but wasn't debated by the full House or Senate.

Goldberg herself has expressed reservations about online sales in the past, particularly the effect on neighborhood convenience stores and other small retailers that depend heavily on customers who come in to buy lottery tickets and purchase other items while they are there.

Lottery agents around the state earned $292 million in commissions and bonuses from winning tickets in the last fiscal year.

Online sales also raise concerns about minors buying tickets, or the prospect of Massachusetts residents losing out on prizes to out-of-state buyers.

Nonetheless, Goldberg and others say the lottery must come to terms with the consumer habits of millennials and other young people, or face a future with an aging customer base and diminishing sales — boosted only occasionally by giant jackpots.

"Online sales for Christmas gifts exceeded the box stores last year," Goldberg said. "So at some point this lottery has to modernize. Other lotteries in the country are doing that."