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Bonus ball bounced by Lotto Texas

Apr 21, 2006, 9:21 am

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Texas Lottery

Come Sunday, Lotto Texas players won't have the "bonus ball" to kick around anymore.

When Saturday night's drawing for Lotto's $32 million jackpot is over, the Texas Lottery Commission will reintroduce the version of the game it abandoned in October 2003. The move came after players sent a clear signal that they do not like having to match the number on that extra ball for a chance to win the grand prize.

How clear was the signal?

Lotto ticket sales plummeted by 30 percent after the bonus ball was introduced.

Lottery Commission Chairman C. Thomas Clowe said the agency, which generates about $1 billion annually for the state, needs to be responsive to players' wishes because so many more opportunities have surfaced in recent years for those who enjoy risking a little money for the prospect of winning a whole lot more.

"Our games have to be fresh, they have to be attractive because players vote with their pocketbooks," Clowe said. "And there is a lot more competition for that gaming dollar now than there was when Lotto was first introduced here back in the early 1990s. There's Internet gaming, there are casinos all along our borders and there are all of these eight-liners out there."

Eight-liners refer to game-of-chance terminals in truck stops and convenience stores where prizes are sometimes illegally converted to cash.

Under the back-to-the-future configuration of Lotto that will appear Sunday, players will attempt to match six numbers from a field of 54 to win the jackpot. Lotto jackpots start at $4 million and are designed to increase when no one matches all six numbers in the twice-weekly drawings. Prizes are also awarded to players who match three, four or five of the numbers drawn.

Lottery officials are promoting the change with television ads featuring retired Dallas Cowboys Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith talking furtively of a comeback. But the comeback refers to the returning Lotto configuration.

The odds of winning a Lotto jackpot will go from 1 in about 48 million to about 1 in 25.8 million when the game is changed.

The higher odds under the bonus ball setup were designed to limit winners and drive the jackpots into the $100 million range, which was supposed to boost ticket sales. But the sluggish pace of sales during the low jackpot periods made the climb toward those jackpots slow.

Lottery officials are still hoping for high jackpots, so they plan to devote a higher percentage of the ticket sales to the grand prize, meaning that the nonjackpot winnings will be much smaller than in the past. Lottery critic Dawn Nettles, publisher of the Lotto Report newsletter, criticized the strategy and predicted that it would backfire with loyal players.

"The game they're fixing to start on Sunday is not the game we had before," Nettles said, referring to the reduced lower-level prizes and to the fact that the game was originally designed with 50 numbers, not 54. "This is deceptive advertising."

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