By Bruce Newman
The California Lottery paid cash-strapped Californians $2.56 billion in prize money last year, and gave the state's impoverished public school system another $1.32 billion. But when push came to shove, where was the love? According to the Lottery's own research, only 40 percent of Californians reported feeling positive about it: notto lotto.
No wonder the buccaneering bureaucrats at the California Lottery Commission unanimously approved adding Powerball -- the game with six of the 10 biggest U.S. jackpots on record -- to its lineup starting Monday. While the Golden State has been wrapping its caviar dreams in the $1 tickets -- and often puny payouts -- of SuperLotto Plus and Mega Millions, Powerball has been a nationwide sensation, a $2 ticket to ride in a jackpot that starts at $40 million, and climbs $10 million after every drawing that doesn't produce a winner.
But the introduction of Powerball -- which requires players to pick five numbers between 1 and 59, then a Powerball number from 1 to 35 -- represents more than just a new way for Californians to fritter away their hard-earned cash. The lottery commission is spending $8.4 million on a re-branding effort that not so subtly equates playing Powerball with man's first walk on the moon, women's suffrage and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It began a few weeks ago with billboards scattered across the state that said only BELIEVE. Those will be followed by a second, slightly more explicit wave of ads, urging gamblers to BELIEVE IN SOMETHING BIGGER. That's probably not a bad idea considering the odds against hitting Powerball's six-number jackpot are 175,233,510 to 1.
The campaign is the brainchild of Los Angeles adman David Angelo, who said in a statement, "The Powerball launch gives the California Lottery an opportunity to shift the brand conversation from desperation to inspiration. We're not just trying to sell Powerball tickets, we're trying to inspire a movement ..."
If the movement just sells Powerball tickets, the lottery commission -- which made its decision the day after a record Powerball drawing for $587.5 million -- probably won't mind. To raise awareness of the new game, the ad agency has been running a TV commercial -- to the tune of "California Dreaming" -- in which people moving through a slo-mo dreamscape are being pelted by a hailstorm of white ping-pong balls. After viewers are asked to "Believe in something bigger," a red ping-pong ball descends, as if from Heaven, and floats into the hand of a lucky winner. This is either the trademark red Powerball, or the beginning of the Rapture.
At Hana's Bottle Shop in Santa Clara, one of the "lucky retailers" that have sold winning tickets of $1 million or more, among the Lottery's 21,000 outlets, Jose Carranza of Sunnyvale was eagerly anticipating the day he can plunk his two dollars down on a Powerball ticket. While buying a fistful of Scratchers, Carranza acknowledged, "We've been waiting for that."
Even when there isn't a big jackpot to stimulate excitement, the store sells no less than $3,000 of Lottery tickets each day, with some customers coming from as far as San Francisco, hoping Hana's luck will rub off on them. And every time news of a huge Powerball jackpot -- now available to players in 43 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands -- reached local players, clerk Julie Huizar said she was bombarded with demands to bring the game to California. "Everybody's been waiting for this moment," Huizar said of Monday's launch. "You'd be surprised. I've had people coming in since April 1 trying to buy Powerball tickets."
The people are ready
Lottery commissioners feared Powerball's pull would cannibalize players from its other games, but eventually relented when demand for the game increased during the run-up in last November's half-billion dollar jackpot. "People have been beating our door down for this for quite a while," said Lottery spokesman Alex Traverso. "And now they're definitely excited."
Blank Powerball forms have been kept out of sight at the state's retail lottery kiosks, but on Wednesday, one stack was accidentally put on display at a "lucky" 7-Eleven on Senter Road in San Jose. A customer filled one out and happily brought it to clerk Dziet Tran.
"I felt bad for the guy because he had a big smile on his face," Tran said. "He was all happy, and I had to break the news to him. 'Hey, there's no Powerball yet.' He got kinda upset."
Tran encouraged the man to believe in something bigger, then gave him some free jerky.
Contact Bruce Newman at 408-920-5004. Follow him on Twitter at BruceNewmanTwit.
The jackpots are from three multistate games: Powerball, Mega Millions and the Big Game (precursor to Mega Millions).
1. $656 million, Mega Millions, March 30, 2012
Winnings tickets sold in Maryland, Illinois and Kansas
2. $587.5 million, Powerball, Nov. 28, 2012
Winning tickets sold in Missouri and Arizona
3. $390 million, Mega Millions, March 6, 2007
Winning tickets sold in Georgia and New Jersey
4. $380 million, Mega Millions, Jan. 4, 2011
Winning tickets sold in Idaho and Washington
5. $365 million, Powerball, Feb. 18, 2006
Winning ticket sold in Nebraska
6. $363 million, Big Game, May 9, 2000
Winning tickets sold in Illinois and Michigan.
7. $340 million, Powerball, Oct. 19, 2005
Winning ticket sold in Oregon
8. $337 million, Powerball, Aug. 15, 2012.
Winning ticket sold in Michigan
9. $336.4 million, Powerball, Feb. 11, 2012
Winning ticket sold in Rhode Island
10. $336 million, Mega Millions, Aug. 28, 2009
Winning tickets sold in New York and California
Sources: www.powerball.com and www.megamillions.com