Outshined by massive jackpots since Powerball doubled the cost of its tickets last year, Mega Millions enacted big changes to inflate its jackpots and lure customers who only play when the pots get huge - and the revamp appears to be working.
The Mega Millions jackpot for Friday night's drawing is an estimated $400 million. It is the second-largest Mega Millions jackpot ever, trailing only a $656 million jackpot won in March 2012, and the fifth largest lottery jackpot of any kind in U.S. history.
Whereas Powerball jackpots started ballooning more quickly after the game increased its ticket price in January 2012 from $1 to $2, Mega Millions operators kept the price of a ticket at $1. But in October, Mega Millions significantly lowered the odds of winning the jackpot, thereby increasing the chances of it rolling over.
The current jackpot has rolled over 20 times without a winner.
"The revamp has given us a game that has a better chance of rolling and growing more quickly," said Paula Otto, the Virginia Lottery's executive director and Mega Millions' lead director. "There's some things we can control, there's some things that we can't control. Of the things we can control, those changes seem to be working."
Scott Byerly, a 47-year-old programmer from the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, said he frequently plays Mega Millions and Powerball. He purchased tickets for both Thursday morning at a Des Moines convenience store, even though Powerball's jackpot had reset to its base amount of $40 million because Wednesday's drawing for an estimated $122 million jackpot matched winning tickets sold in Nebraska and Massachusetts.
"How do I feel about a $400 million jackpot? The same as I feel about $20 million. I won't win," said Byerly. "I'm buying the tickets to daydream. That entertainment value is worth 2 or 3 bucks."
Mega Millions, which originally was played in 12 states, expanded its reach alongside Powerball after a 2010 licensing agreement. Both games are now played in 43 states, plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While Mega Millions remains $1 a ticket, five of the six numbers needed for a jackpot win now range from 1 to 75, instead of the previous 1 to 56. The sixth number, which is the gold Mega Millions ball, is now from 1 to 15 in the revamp, instead of 1 to 46. The changes decreased the odds of winning the Mega Millions jackpot from about 1 in 176 million, which is nearly the odds of winning Powerball's jackpot, to roughly 1 in 259 million.
Although Mega Millions was offered in far fewer states than Powerball until the past few years, it may now start sharing Powerball's spotlight because of larger payouts.
"I don't usually buy Mega Millions, but I saw it on the news last night," said Megan Leo, who works in insurance in Des Moines. "Usually when the jackpot is this high, whether it's Powerball or Mega Millions, I'll play. Can't win if you don't try."
The operators of both Mega Millions and Powerball are emphasizing the expansion of secondary prizes of $1 million or more that players can win. For Mega Millions and its current $1 ticket, an extra $1 option has been expanded to allow players to increase their secondary prize total to between $1 million and $5 million. Powerball introduced $1 million and $2 million prizes in January 2012.
Otto said that since late October, there have been 30 winners of the $1 million secondary prize, including two winners that scored $5 million and $3 million respectively. In the past two years, Powerball has awarded its $1 million prize more than 820 times and its $2 million prize more than 130 times.
"I think $1 million is still a tremendous prize, and a life-changing prize," she said. "It has been a really good addition to both Powerball and Mega Millions ... it really has refreshed the games."
Jim Watt, a mechanic in suburban St. Louis, coordinated an office pool with more than 20 co-workers at the Webster Groves Subaru dealer. He said they usually pass on Mega Millions and its lesser prizes. But not this time.
"We usually don't play until the jackpot is at least 100 million," the 46-year-old said. "I'm not very optimistic. The most we ever hit was 100-some dollars. Maybe $200, but we're still at it."
The next Mega Millions drawing out of Atlanta is scheduled Friday night.