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.
"This is an area that certainly is ripe for development and could bring in very large dollars and create jobs," said Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat and advocate of gambling expansion. "I'd like to think we'd be a pioneer in this."
Still, gambling experts doubt Illinois will launch casino-style online gambling anytime soon.
Paul Jason of the Public Gaming Research Institute said Illinois might have a small advantage from selling lottery tickets but not enough that other states couldn't zoom past if they wanted to.
New Jersey lawmakers have approved online casino gambling, only to have it vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie. A second try is in the works. Nevada has authorized online poker and could go live within the year, said John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance.
Jones, the Illinois lottery superintendent, insisted many online lottery fears are groundless, in part because Internet sales give regulators more control.
Illinois currently limits players to $10 for each online lottery purchase. Players have to submit a credit card and be approved before they can buy tickets, he said, and prizes will be denied to anyone who lies about eligibility.
And the Internet could broaden the market for lottery tickets, Jones said. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of the public approves of the lottery, but only about 10 percent actually play. Making tickets available online could change that.
"When you really think about it, a well-run lottery is a perfect combination of public policy and business practice," Jones said.
Associated Press writer Ken Kusmer in Indianapolis contributed to this report.
Shannon McFarland can be reached at https://twitter.com/shanmcf