DES MOINES (AP) — The Mega Millions jackpot inched toward a U.S. lottery record Monday, soaring to $586 million amid a frenzy of ticket purchases and raising the possibility that the prize could pass the once-unthinkable $1 billion mark by Christmas Eve, if nobody were to win before then.
Paula Otto, executive director of the Virginia Lottery and lead director for Mega Millions, said ticket sales were ahead of projections for today's drawing, increasing the likelihood that it could shatter the current record of $656 million set in a March 2012 Mega Millions drawing.
That was enough for Drew Gentsch to buy a ticket Monday morning. The attorney from Des Moines generally doesn't play, but the ballooning jackpot was too good to pass up.
“I think it's ridiculous, but you have to dream big,” he said. “The odds of winning are so low, there's no real reason to play. But it's fun to do so once in a while.”
Otto said it's likely that the jackpot will be increased again after lottery officials meet this morning to discuss sales.
Between 65 and 70 percent of the roughly 259 million possible number combinations will be in play when the numbers are drawn, Otto estimated.
“Lotto players are procrastinators,” she said. “They tend to buy on the day of the draw.”
The large Mega Millions prize is the product of a major game revamping in October that dramatically lowered the odds of winning the jackpot. Otto predicted that if a winner isn't selected tonight and it rolls over past the next drawing on Friday night, the jackpot will reach $1 billion — an unheard of amount for Mega Millions or Powerball, the nation's two major lottery games.
“We had predicted last week that if we are still on the same roll on Christmas Eve, we'll definitely be over a billion,” Otto said.
The current jackpot, which is the fourth-largest in U.S. history and closely trails the $587.5 million and $590.5 million set by Powerball, has had heavy sales over the past several days.
Otto said the higher the jackpot, the higher the sales. For example, when the jackpot was $99 million on Nov. 5, lottery officials sold a little more than $20 million worth of tickets. For Friday's then-$425 million jackpot, $168 million worth of tickets were sold.
Some players were taken aback by the growing jackpot and the possibility that it could keep getting bigger if it rolls for a 22nd consecutive time.
Natali Justiniano Pahl, 47, bought five tickets Monday morning at a convenience store in downtown Des Moines. She said the growing jackpot made her excited, albeit somewhat weary.
“It gets the excitement up, but there's a point when it's too much,” said Justiniano Pahl, who works in human resources. “Five million dollars would be good; $550 million would be good. Either one would change your life.”
Otto said officials have never had such a huge jackpot at this time of year, and it was unclear how holiday shoppers were driving sales.
“To have that kind of money on the line the week before Christmas, we've never had that happen before,” she said. “What fun.”
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