BOOSTERS OF STATE-SPONSORED gambling have always buffed its moral tarnish by proclaiming how its proceeds go to support education and other warm-and-fuzzy government activities. But here in Washington, the state lottery is increasingly being used to support more gambling: that is, the building of expensive stadiums to accommodate untrustworthy sports teams. This year alone, the money earmarked for stadiums will equal 10 percent of what the lottery contributes to the state's general fund.
The money sucking is becoming more conspicuous as the new football-stadium financial games get under way. Earlier this year, the first scratch tickets to support Paul Allen's football stadium went on sale. In keeping with the inclusive nature of the new sports facility, the $2 Sports Bonanza tickets allow you to scratch off a picture of a football, basketball, soccer ball, or volleyball. This lottery is supposed to raise $6 million a year to build Allen's stadium and half that much for the Mariners stadium, with both amounts mandated to increase by 4 percent each year for the next 20 years.
The results already indicate that the lottery will not be able to meet this bill from stadium-themed games alone and will have to poach off the rest of the lottery. By the end of June the lottery has to hand over $3 million (or half the $6 million yearly total) toward the football stadium. After 11 weeks, Sports Bonanza had sold just $6.4 million in tickets. Since the games have a profit margin of around 20 percent, current numbers suggest that Sports Bonanza will be lucky to net $2 million. The balance will have to be sucked out of the rest of the state's lottery take.
Of course, in the grand scheme of education (let alone stadium) funding, $1 million is nothing. But this is only the first few months of the obligation. Extrapolate out to the year 2020, with a 4 percent increase each year, and football could start eating into the lottery's education contribution in a more significant way.
State officials concede that traditional lottery games won't cover the public's $200 million debt stream for the baseball and football stadiums. While Paul Allen has agreed to contribute $1 million worth of marketing—fee advertising space in the Kingdome, for example—for the stadium games, these efforts will be hampered somewhat. For instance, the Mariners scratch tickets are closely identified with the ball club, right down to the slogan "My! Oh! My!" But Tim Brown, research director for the Washington State Lottery, says, "The NFL is very uncomfortable about making a direct link between a team and anything to do with gambling." (You know what a squeaky-clean image the NFL has to protect.)
FACING A MOUNTING stadium-funding burden, lottery officials are beginning to consider an idea that would make Washington a national innovator: state-sponsored gambling online. "It's one of the things we're looking at long-term," Brown says. "It's still in the exploratory stage." Internet gambling presents challenges, too, since lottery rules require that the games be sold only to in-state players who are 18 or older. No other state has been bold enough to try it yet. But with our dual passion for fancy technology and expensive stadiums, Washington may be just the candidate to boldly go where no state has gone before.