Online lottery game spicy and controversial

By Don Davis

Debate about online gambling already is hot, but it just got spicy.

Spicy 7’s to be precise. That is the new Minnesota Lottery online scratch-off game that lottery officials say will not increase gambling, but critics bet the other way.

The game is simple: A player sees a tic-tac-toe-like game board and uses a computer mouse to click on squares, hoping to get three 7s in a row. If that happens, a player can win $777.

The lottery made no announcement of the game going live, but sold 964 $1 tickets in the first day after it started Thursday, Lottery Executive Director Ed Van Petten said. The lottery wanted to test it out quietly before the general public began visiting.

“So far, it is working perfectly,” he said Friday.

A trial version of the game can be played for free, without any chance of winning. To play for money, funds must be put into an account that also can be used to play lotto-type games like Gopher 5. Only people in Minnesota may play online, although players do not need to be Minnesotans.

Minnesotans have been able to buy lotto tickets online for years, but the difference is that the in new online scratch game players know right away if they won, much like when they play traditional paper scratch-off games.

Van Petten said the game is aimed at attracting younger players to traditional games, and he expects many of the new players to buy paper tickets at retail outlets. He said the aim is not to build an online scratch-game following.

“We look at it more as brand awareness, more of a marketing tool than anything, to introduce our product to a new demographic,” Van Petten said.

Those who oppose gambling don’t see things that way.

President Jack Meeks of Citizens Against Gambling Expansion said that state law does not allow the lottery to set up online games. If the game is to be legal, he said, the Legislature must specifically approve it.

“When the Minnesota Lottery was written into statute and enacted over 20 years ago, no one could have imagined that technology would advance to where it is now,” Meeks said. “The lottery’s unilateral decision to become the first state in the country to wade into online scratch-offs without legislative oversight is just further evidence that the lottery is overreaching and proves we need legislation to clearly define what they can and cannot do.”

Van Petten said state law does allow the new game, but it is not designed to make the lottery more money. He said that existing retail outlets are his priority and they have produced all lottery sales growth over the years.

Lottery receipts are down 2.8 percent from a year ago, he said, and the new game could help make up the deficit. However, he added, lotto-type games are where most of the rebound needs to happen.

As the population ages, some of the older players no longer can take part, so the lottery is looking at younger players who may prefer to use online options.

“We definitely don’t want (the online game) to be the primary source for these tickets,” Van Petten said. “We still want our retailers to be. But we would like to initiate more contact with more individuals on the Internet.”

Online players are limited to spending $50 a week.

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More information and a free trial Spicy 7′s game are available at www.mnlottery-ilottery.com/eit/gamedetails/200.

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