But online sales still dwarfed by retailer sales
With a record $540 million Mega Millions jackpot in play, Illinois picked the right week to become the first state in the nation to sell lottery tickets online. Others are watching closely to see if the new approach pays off and whether the state takes the next big step: launching online poker, blackjack and other casino games.
It took only three minutes for the first online lottery ticket to sell once the system went live at 7 a.m. Sunday. By Thursday evening, more than $425,000 worth of tickets had been sold online, and officials expected sales to increase by the hour as people take their shot at Friday night's record prize.
Internet sales on Thursday alone amounted to just more than $64,000 by evening, while the day's retail sales topped $3.2 million.
Illinois is the first state to put its lottery on the Internet in the three months since the U.S. Justice Department reversed its previous stance barring states from conducting online gambling. The department's ruling goes far beyond tickets, however, and opens the door to states offering virtually any form of gambling, except on sports.
Other states are so far hedging their bets. Al Larsen, spokesman for Indiana's Hoosier Lottery, said several lotteries began taking steps toward online sales after the Justice decision, but Indiana is so far just keeping an eye on its neighbor to the west.
"That's all we're doing, just monitoring it right now," Larsen said.
Gambling experts wonder whether the next move would be launching a state-sponsored virtual casino that could rake in huge sums. New Jersey and Nevada already are exploring the idea. Illinois officials say they aren't going that direction — yet.
Lottery superintendent Michael Jones says gambling policy is set by the governor and lawmakers, and they haven't told him to explore online casino games. But Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat who is generally cool to gambling expansion, has not publicly ruled out the idea.
"If we can enhance lottery revenues in a prudent way, so be it," Quinn said earlier this week when asked about adding more online games.
Online gambling, from lottery tickets to Texas Hold 'em, only adds to gambling opponents' worries. They fear people will find it far too tempting to enter their credit card number and gamble away money they can't afford to lose.
"This is the first expansion. The next expansion will be the scratch-off tickets. Once people get scratch off tickets, there is no stopping. This is opening a Pandora's box," said Anita Bedell, director of Illinois Church Action on Alcohol and Addiction Problems.
Some prominent Illinois lawmakers are intrigued by the possibility of online gambling.