Moneybox

Wake Up, Sheeple: There’s No Real Difference Between Powerball and Mega Millions

It’s a bigger scam than the lottery itself. (Well, kind of.)

Mega Millions and Powerball tickets side by side.
They’re the same! Basically!
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

We’ve had our fun, but the pursuit of the Mega Millions jackpot is over. A single ticket sold at a South Carolina convenience store matches the winning numbers, and its owner will be able to claim the $1.537 billion prize and act upon all the grand designs they’d undoubtedly hatched during the lead-up to Tuesday’s big drawing. Tragically, it was not me, and my mink zeppelin will never be built. (Before you get upset, no animals would have been hurt in the construction of the airship. The term “mink zeppelin” merely alludes to its all-mink crew.)

Much of the nation was gripped by Mega Millions fever as the jackpot surpassed the $1 billion mark two weeks ago and, with the exception of one fortunate South Carolinian, we are all losers. What are we supposed to do now? Play Powerball? Like a bunch of idiots? Maybe. The two games are essentially identical.

A Mega Millions ticket will run you $2, the same price as a Powerball ticket. Both games are won when your numbers match the numbers of five randomly drawn white balls plus an additional, brightly colored ball pulled from a separate drum. This is the “mega” ball or the “power” ball. Bet you can’t guess which one is used for which game.

In Mega Millions, the first five balls are drawn from a lot of 70, and the “mega” ball is pulled from a drum of 25. In Powerball, it’s five from 69, and the titular “power” ball comes from a drum of 26. This results in a negligible odds difference for jackpots: 1 in 302,575,350 for Mega Millions, and 1 in 292,201,338 for Powerball.

While Mega Millions has been the hot lotto game in recent weeks given its gigantic jackpot, it wasn’t even the largest purse in lotto history. That honor goes to Powerball, whose $1.586 billion jackpot in January 2016 was split by three winners. Of the country’s past 10 biggest lottery jackpots, five came from Powerball games and five were Mega Millions.

The games weren’t always identical. Powerball came first (it was originally called “Lotto America”), and it launched in 1988 across seven states. The six-state Mega Millions (née “The Big Game”) was introduced in 1996, but the two remained geographically separate for more than a decade. States that ran Powerball couldn’t feature Mega Millions and vice-versa. That all changed in 2009, when the lotteries’ governing bodies agreed to merge jurisdictions. Now, you can pick Powerball numbers in the same 44 states where Mega Millions tickets are sold. (The one exception is Puerto Rico, where you can play Powerball but not Mega Millions.)

Even the games’ minor wrinkles are more or less carbon copies of each other. Take this excerpt from an Indy Star guide on how to play the two lotteries :

Powerball players can add Power Play for an extra $1 per ticket for a chance to multiply a non-jackpot prize up to five times. Mega Millions players can purchase the Megaplier for an extra $1 a ticket for a chance to multiply a non-jackpot prize up to five times.

What bullshit!

Two wholly independent associations run these games, a fact that makes the similarities that much more shameless. Where’s your sense of pride, Multi-State Lottery Association? This isn’t Pepsi-Coke here. It’s not even Armageddon-Deep Impact. It’s just lazy, and if you’re going to scam us lotto players out of our hard-earned money, at least respect us enough to provide some variety.

They can start by shaking up the formats. Nothing builds brand loyalty like all-out confusion. If you’re a Powerball player, a Mega Millions ticket should look like the damn Voynich manuscript in your hands. Why not add an additional “mega” ball or three? Pulling balls from a drum is so rec center Bingo; let an octopus pick the numbers like they’re World Cup games. That is, if you think numbers are still the way to go. The world is ready for a scratch-and-sniff lottery ticket.

Mega Millions and Powerball should also get back to protecting their respective turfs. Getting to play either lottery from any old gas station has made us complacent. Throw out that 2009 agreement, split up the states, and let the rivalries bloom. I want Vermont Powerballers to seethe with jealousy (and/or be forced to drive a few miles across the border) when the Mega Millionaires of New Hampshire get to play for a billion-dollar jackpot. The country is divided enough as it is. We should just lean into the skid.

Sadly, the games may forever be in lockstep, as their lazy similarities are mutually beneficial. If it seems like everyone rushes to play Powerball one month and then stocks up on Mega Millions tickets the next, that’s because it’s intentional. The cycle of highly publicized mega-jackpots followed by a trickle of lesser winnings is by design. Powerball reduced its odds to produce bigger prizes in 2015, and Mega Millions followed suit two years later. The result is a kind of seesaw effect, in which the games’ terrible odds allow their jackpots to grow ever-bigger.

To wit: Powerball’s jackpot is now up to $750 million. That could buy a decent mink zeppelin, if you’re willing to finance it.