As of this writing, the estimated Powerball jackpot for this Wednesday's drawing is $1.5 billion. Yes, that's billion with a “b.” Not only is it by far the biggest lottery jackpot in American history, it's also a whopping $550 million larger than this past Saturday's Powerball jackpot of $949.8 million, itself a record-breaker.
So how much of the ticket sales goes into the jackpot? In other words, if people buy an extra $1 million dollars' worth of tickets, how much bigger are the winnings?
According to Kelly Cripe, director of media relations for the Texas Lottery Commission, precisely “34.0066 percent of each sales dollar is contributed to the jackpot.”
Every Powerball lottery starts at $40 million. So let's say nobody wins the initial $40 million, and 10 million people buy tickets for the second drawing (which is consistent with historical Powerball participation data). At $2 a ticket, that's $20 million in ticket sales. If we take 34.0066 percent of $20 million, that adds $7,201,320 to the next Powerball jackpot. What was $40 million on Wednesday is now $47,201,320 on Saturday.
And so it grows.
Last Saturday's Powerball drawing was the 19th in a row without a grand-prize winner. Week after week, a little more than 34 percent of each ticket sold has been rolled into the fattening jackpot. When ticket sales were modest — 40 or 50 million a week — the pot grew incrementally. But as Powerball fever has set in, ticket sales have increased dramatically.
In the three days leading up to last Saturday's record-setting $949.8 million jackpot, Powerball retailers in 44 states (plus D.C.) set their own record: $900 million in ticket sales. Lottery officials are used to seeing long lines at convenient stores when the jackpot reaches big numbers like $200 million or $300 million, but the torrent of ticket-buying last Saturday surprised even lottery veterans.
“We've never been at these levels,” Texas Lottery executive director Gary Grief told the Chicago Sun-Times. “It's exponentially greater than any sales that any of the states involved have ever seen.”
The Multi-State Lottery Association (MUSL), the nonprofit organization that runs Powerball, also predicts the estimated jackpots. The forecasts, says Texas Lottery's Kelly Cripe, are based on the cash already in the prize pool, plus sales projections based on “institutional knowledge, historical data, seasonality, weather and other lesser factors that might possibly affect sales.”
In addition to ticket sales, there's another reason why the Powerball jackpot is growing so big, so fast — it was designed that way. In October, 2015, MUSL officials tweaked the “game matrix” to make the Powerball grand prize even harder to win. The odds of picking all five numbers plus the Powerball number is now one in 292 million, up from one in 175 million.
The MUSL knows that making it harder to win is a guaranteed way to bump up the jackpots, which is guaranteed to increase ticket sales. In fact, computer simulations run by FiveThirtyEight.com predicted a 63.4 percent chance of a billion-dollar Powerball jackpot at least once every five years. We got there in three months.
If you want the Powerball jackpot to creep even closer to $2 billion, there's only one thing to do — join the self-delusional throngs and buy a ticket. After all, somebody's got to win, right?