The Missouri Lottery is the fastest-growing game in the United States, according to an annual survey by International Gaming & Wagering Business.
The Missouri Lottery posted 21.3 percent growth in the 2003 fiscal year that just ended on top of 15 percent growth the previous year, "outperforming every other lottery," the trade publication said in its September issue.
"It is very difficult to string together two outstanding years in the current environment, so Missouri's accomplishment is all the more impressive," according to the publication.
While Missouri did add a popular online Keno game, the biggest growth the past year has come in instant scratch-off ticket sales -- up $79 million.
Game officials last year also earmarked a slightly larger percentage of revenues for prizes -- now at 60.5 percent -- and introduced a $10 scratch-off game that quickly has accounted for almost 18 percent of all scratcher sales.
Despite that glittering track record, lottery director Jim Scroggins is worried this year whether the lottery can even match last year's sales of $710 million for zero percent growth.
The reason is advertising, or lack thereof.
The Missouri General Assembly slashed lottery advertising this year for the second straight year.
Scroggins argued with budget-strapped, recession-challenged lawmakers, to no avail, that annual lottery growth is fueled by a constantly changing menu of new games -- and heavy advertising of those games. This year, however, Scroggins said, there are no big new games in the development pipeline, and he predicted that sales are going to flatten. Less advertising will only make it worse.
Critics in the legislature pooh-poohed such talk and contended lottery products sell themselves in convenience stores and other retail outlets.
And those critics pointed to Massachusetts as Exhibit A, which turned out to be a bad idea.
That East Coast state, critics noted, cut its lottery advertising to zero six years ago. The Massachusetts Lottery remains the nation's second-biggest game with $4.2 billion in annual sales, trailing only the New York Lottery at $5.4 billion.
Shorn of advertising, however, the Massachusetts Lottery has steadily lost presence in the public consciousness, growing a mere 1.2 percent this past fiscal year. Average growth among all state lottery states was 6.4 percent, the magazine said.
"We have no means to generate jackpot awareness to our players," said Massachusetts Lottery spokeswoman Amy Morris.
"The average Joe player, after six years with no advertising, couldn't tell you what our jackpots are, or what games we offer."
So, around the same time last spring when Missouri lawmakers were repealing the power of advertising -- citing Massachusetts for justification -- Massachusetts lawmakers were rethinking their ill-advised decision of six years ago and voting to restore $5 million for lottery advertising this year.
"Massachusetts is in the same budget crunch" as Missouri and most other states, Morris noted. "But the legislature agreed we needed a modest advertising budget."
Missouri lawmakers also slashed lottery advertising in 1988 to save money, but reversed themselves a year later after sales -- and dollars for schools -- plummeted 25 percent in four months. Much of that financing was restored the following year, and sales jumped 34 percent.
Scroggins estimates that this year's $3 million advertising cut will reduce sales by $30 million or more, leaving net lottery profits for public education short around $8.8 million of this year's budgeted goal of $192.4 million. Stay tuned.
New slots (yawn)
Hundreds of new themed slot machines will be unveiled in Las Vegas later this week at the annual Global Gaming Expo, the industry's annual idea marketplace and coming-out party for new games.
If advance publicity is any guide, the new games appear to be a lot more of the same old thing.
Slots, after all, are just slots. The odds and mathematics of the games never change. But the pictures on the reels do.
This year's crop of themed slot art reaches out again with screen stars and other recognizable icons in unabashed grabs for niche market share.
Many of these new themed slots will be showing up in Missouri casinos soon, if not already. Among them: "Men in Black," "Animal House," "Chicago," "Wayne's World," "Super Dave," "Li'l Abner," "Saturday Night Live," "That Girl," "Drew Carey," "M*A*S*H," "The Twilight Zone," "Rodney Dangerfield," and from the nonfilm categories, "S&H Green Stamps" and the best seller "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus."
A word of caution. Do not be taken in by pretty pictures of your favorite stars and shows. Instead, take the time to research slot odds, jackpot frequency and casino payback percentages, and play only those games where the house edge might be a little thinner.
And please remember whenever gambling, and particularly when playing the slots, always quit while you're ahead. You won't be for long.