In three days last week, the Montana Lottery took in $2.4 million in Powerball sales alone – almost 10 times what it normally does.
Of course, never before had a jackpot reached $950 million.
Now, since no one won it Saturday and the jackpot has jumped to an unprecedented $1.5 billion — with a chance it could go even higher — retailers are in the midst of another run on tickets from wannabe billionaires.
With the even bigger jackpot and an extra day of sales now in the mix, in the first week and a half of 2016 the Montana Lottery could take in what it normally takes half a year to generate through Powerball sales.
“I was surprised — I would have expected it would get hit Saturday,” said Jo Berg, Montana Lottery marketing manager. “Of course, the changes made at the national level last year were done so they would periodically have jackpots approaching $1 billion. Now we’re there.”
The changes, made in October, added 10 numbers (from 59 to 69) to the total from which five winning numbers are selected. Even though the number of Powerball possibilities was simultaneously reduced from 35 to 26, the odds of matching all five numbers plus the Power Ball skyrocketed.
The change in the matrix added more than 100 million possible combinations of numbers that could win to a total that already stood at 175 million.
That drove the odds of any one ticket matching the winning numbers to an astronomical 1 in 292,201,338. Someone has a far greater chance of being killed by parts falling off an airplane.
When the Powerball game debuted in 1992, the odds of winning the jackpot were 1 in 54,979,154 — and still, your chances of being killed by falling airplane parts was greater.
That doesn’t stop many people from trying their luck when jackpots climb to mind-boggling amounts.
Berg says there is no way to track how many people in Montana are buying lottery tickets. But in the three days leading up to Saturday’s drawing, she said there were 551,661 separate transactions.
Some of those were likely people who purchased multiple chances on the same slip of paper, Berg said. Others may have been a single individual buying separate tickets for themselves and others, with each recorded as a separate transaction. Still more may have bought Powerball tickets on more than one occasion.
“That’s why I go with the dollar amount,” Berg says of the $2,416,338 worth of Powerball tickets sold on Jan. 7, 8 and 9.
By comparison, Montana’s total Powerball ticket sales for the last fiscal year were $12.5 million.
Montana’s total for the three days leading up to Saturday was but a drop in the national bucket. Forty-four states, the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories now sell Powerball lottery tickets, and Montana was responsible for about a quarter of 1 percent of the $929,998,415 in all sales from Jan. 7-9.
Nationally, 25 tickets came within a number of the $900 million jackpot, and paid out $1 million each. No one in Montana came that close, but more than 44,000 tickets paid back between $4 and $300. The higher amount went to tickets that matched four of five numbers and missed the power ball, or three of five numbers and hit the power ball.
For each $1 in Powerball sales, Montana spends 50 cents paying out prizes won, according to Berg. Sixty-eight percent of those 50 cents goes to the Multi-State Lottery Association to help pay for the big jackpots, no matter where the tickets are sold. The rest is used to pay smaller prizes won in Montana.
Just more than 39 of the remaining 50 cents from each $1 in sales winds up in the Montana general fund. Intralot, the company that supplies and maintains the lottery machines located in 950 retail outlets across the state, gets just under 6 cents per $1. Retailers, meantime, get 5 cents for every dollar’s worth of lottery tickets they sell.
Montana was the seventh of the now 44 states to sell lottery tickets for games sponsored by the Multi-State Lottery Association, joining in 1989 when the main game was called Lotto America. By 1991, the state had itself a record winner when Darlene and John Sharp of Havre bought a winning ticket for a $47 million jackpot that seems pretty paltry these days.
In 1999, schoolteachers Dean and Kristi Drenzek of East Glacier won a $19.3 million Powerball jackpot — but didn’t claim it or tell anyone they’d won until school let out for the summer 2 1/2 months later, so as to not disrupt their classrooms.
Montana had its last Powerball jackpot winners in 2010. Two home health care workers, Kim Claassen and Joseph Lamport Jr. of Helena, shared one of two winning tickets for a $97 million payout. The other ticket was purchased in Ohio.
Claassen and Lamport split $48.5 million.
Wednesday’s $1.5 billion jackpot is what you get if you match all five numbers plus the Power Ball, and opt to have it paid out to you over the next 29 years with an annuity. If you want cash up front, you’ll get approximately $930 million in one lump sum.
That, mind you, is before federal and state taxes are taken out, which will probably leave you with roughly half of what you started with.
So deduct more than $1 billion from that $1.5 billion jackpot for a more realistic estimate of what you’ll end up with if you beat the 1 in 292,201,338 odds and take the money up front. Also, remember you’ll split the winnings with anyone else who has the same numbers.
The experts figure that so many possible combinations are being sold across America – only Utah, Nevada, Alabama, Mississippi, Alaska and Hawaii don't offer Powerball – that there’s an 80 percent chance someone in America will win it all Wednesday.
But if no one does?
“I can’t even begin to guess what we’d be looking at for a jackpot,” Berg says.