In 1984, all the instant-winner ticket games in all the state lotteries in the country produced about $2 billion in revenues.
By next October, the end of its first year, California's state lottery appears certain to break that record by itself -- a testament to this state's economic power and lottery mania that may accelerate efforts to establish official gambling in every state.
When a state-lottery ballot initiative passed in 1984 over the opposition of Gov. George Deukmejian (R) and many church leaders, even school officials who were to receive much of the proceeds said they doubted that ticket sales could reach the first-year target of $1.4 billion, or about $60 per capita.
But supplies of instant-payoff tickets have run out far earlier than expected for the game's first three phases, and lottery officials estimate that they have collected $800 million in the first three months alone.
Some experts doubt that the lottery can maintain that pace, but previous conservative predictions have proven as worthless as a losing ticket. With a computerized numbers game added to the system, there is a chance of passing the $3 billion annual sales mark.
"The sales pace so far has surpassed anything we've ever dreamed of," said Bob Taylor, the lottery's communications manager. Californians are buying lottery tickets at an annual rate of about $130 for every man, woman and child -- and children cannot play. That figure matches the highest levels registered in the District of Columbia and Maryland, without the advantage of numbers games popular in those areas.
Official lotteries operate in the District and 22 states and are being considered in many more. Martin M. Puncke, president of the National Association of State Lotteries, said total lottery revenues had jumped from $8.1 billion in fiscal 1984 to $9.3 billion in fiscal 1985 before the California opening.
The California lottery symbol, a bright orange capital L on a green square, appears on 21,000 business outlets across the state. It is difficult to find a supermarket, gas station or drug store that does not sell the tickets. Television commercials with pastel cartoons and soft music emphasize what advertising executive Gerry Rubin calls "the fantasy . . . . as opposed to the reality of winning." Commercials in Spanish help attract Latinos, 20 percent of the state's population.
Lottery officials credit the explosion of ticket sales to anticipation built over months of delay in starting, intense news media interest, well-crafted commercials, recreational gambling interest stimulated by nearby Nevada casinos and the prevalence of many ethnic groups, including Latinos and newly arrived ethnic Chinese who apparently have a passion for games of chance.
A Mervin Field California Poll reported that 70 percent of adults had bought at least one ticket but that 71 percent of all sales went to just 18 percent of all adults. These "heavy players," as Field called them, included a higher-than-average percentage of minorities, males and persons at the lower ends of the education and income scales.
Two recent $2 million winners were discovered to be illegal aliens from Latin American. Both received deportation orders but with the happy assurance they would get their money.
The enormous interest among immigrants has inspired some bad feeling: A majority of citizen panelists on one Los Angeles public affairs show voted to bar them from buying tickets. It has also provided material for a recent Johnny Carson late-night monologue: "Everyone in Los Angeles makes two New Year's resolutions," Carson said. "First, to win the lottery, and second, to become an American citizen."
Much of the credit for the lottery's initial success goes to the ballot initiative's requirement -- reflecting the public-service rationale of all state lotteries -- that at least 34 percent of gross revenues go to public education. An additional 50 percent must go back to players in the form of prizes and 16 percent (including 5 percent commission to retail sales outlets) for advertising and administrative costs).
Most lottery ads include the slogan: "Schools win, too." A television commercial blanketing the state shows a woman who appears to be a teacher describing computers being installed in a classroom thanks to lottery profits. As happy children rush by her, she smiles at the camera and repeats another lottery slogan, "It's a good feeling, for a lot of good reasons."
The $15 million advertising campaign -- 75 percent of it spent on television -- is being handled by the international advertising agency Needham Harper Worldwide. Gerry Rubin, president of the agency's Los Angeles office, said their research shows that people are moved to buy tickets by the notion they are helping schools and by gentle, dreamy fantasies of winning.
Some states have emphasized the thrill of the big win, the screaming exultation usually found in promotions for television game shows. The California lottery, under a contract with independent producers, has its own version -- a televised weekly half-hour show of the "Big Spin," which can bring up to $3 million to a select group of $100 ticket holders.
But Rubin's ads shy away from such celebrations of greed. They portray colorful cartoon balloons spreading bright hues over a fairy land landscape to signal the latest "Sky's the Limit" game.
Education officials welcome the lottery money, but cautiously. The first checks to public schools and colleges due late this month will total at least $272 million, a fraction of the state's $20 billion dollar education budget but still gratifying in a state still near the bottom of the list in per-capita spending on public schools.
State school superintendent Bill Honig noted in an interview, however, that the lottery's success may make it more difficult to persuade the legislature and the governor to advance more money from general revenues to handle 100,000 new students flooding the system every year. The initiative requires that lottery revenue not supplant existing state funding, but such distinctions sometimes wilt in the heat of Sacramento politics.
Honig said he was also a bit bothered by the lottery advertising. Despite the teacher in the commercial admiring her new computers, he said, "We haven't seen dime one" of lottery money.