DES MOINES — Iowa lottery players apparently have taken former Hawkeye football coach Hayden Fry’s “scratch-where-it-itches” mantra to heart in a big way.
The state’s lottery enterprise is on track to break its all-time yearly records for sales, proceeds to state causes, prizes paid to players and commissions to its retailers when it closes the current fiscal year on June 30 — with gamblers’ zeal for instant scratch tickets outpacing those who feverishly chase the mega-lotto jackpots.
The first product offered when the Iowa Lottery set up shop in 1985 was a scratch game, and lottery officials say scratch tickets have been their leading category ever since with year-to-date sales through May totaling $230 million — by far the state-run gambling enterprise’s largest sales category.
With those robust sales fueled by a rotating crop of new games and ongoing promotions at the about 2,400 retail outlets offering lottery products, officials say they are on track to smash the record $370.96 million in sales they posted last fiscal year and top the $88 million in proceeds they deposited in the state treasury three years ago.
”At this point it appears that we are on track to have a record year in all of the lottery’s major categories,’ said Mary Neubauer, the lottery’s vice president for external relations. “It has been a good year really across the board.
“Scratch tickets are leading the way,” said Neubauer. “We have been able to continually come up with new ideas and a new mix of games to have out in the marketplace that has kept that scratch category strong for several years now. It doesn’t happen by accident and I know the amount of work that has gone into that to keep that category strong.”
A stable and relatively strong economy despite some weather and trade/tariff challenges for rural areas has meant Iowans have had disposable income to spend on entertainment, such as lottery tickets, she noted, but lottery officials remain concerned they need to “modernize” their operation with online products better adapted to a marketplace shifting away from cash transaction to electronic commerce.
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While physically scratching lottery tickets remains the old-school staple of Iowa players, Neubauer said the long-term odds for the Iowa lottery’s continued success point to a mix of “omnichannel” retail and online offerings that will meet consumers where they conduct commerce.
“We know that long term the trends that are out there mean that these numbers won’t hold forever into the future,” she noted. “We need to plan for the future now while we’re in good shape.”
Luck was on the lottery’s side to a degree during the current fiscal year that dates back to last July 1 when jackpots in Powerball and Mega Millions both climbed to dizzying heights at the same time.
The Mega Millions jackpot climbed to $1.54 billion before it was won in the Oct. 23 drawing with a ticket purchased in South Carolina. Meanwhile, the Powerball jackpot reached $687.8 million when it was split in the drawing on Oct. 27 by two tickets purchased in Iowa and New York.
“That jackpot phenomenon is unpredictable,” Neubauer noted. “We never know when the jackpot is going to be big and when the next big one will hit but certainly that made a big difference in our FY 2019 results.”
With a month remaining in fiscal 2019, the lottery already had achieved $361.4 million in sales while proceeds topped $87 million — both on pace to close in record territory next week. Also, prizes to players through May had topped $222 million, closing in on the record of $227.5 million set last fiscal year, and sales commissions to lottery retailers exceeded $23.5 million through May — approaching the record of $24.6 million set in fiscal 2016, Neubauer noted.
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