While the Bristol Casino opened July 8, people have been playing the odds for 35 years with another form of legalized gambling — the Virginia Lottery.
The Virginia Lottery has been a regular feature in area stores since 1987, with racks of scratch tickets, Powerball and Mega Millions play slips and ticket vending machines. In the past two years, skill games — resembling casino slot machines with bright displays, consoles and padded chairs — have appeared in rows at the backs and sides of many area convenience stores.
The lottery has weathered a pandemic-era Virginia to different degrees, according to lottery spokesperson John Hagerty. The pandemic did cause drops in sales of scratch and drawing tickets in March and April 2020, when emergency orders by then-Gov. Ralph Northam put restrictions on distancing and numbers of people in retail stores.
The decline was not just for ticket sales, Hagerty said, but part of an overall drop in retail and gasoline sales at convenience stores — the major sites for lottery sales.
“But sales rebounded soon after that,” Hagerty said. “On July 1, 2020, Virginia Lottery began online sales of tickets.”
The online sales had been planned before the pandemic struck because of General Assembly legislation allowing the Virginia Lottery to get into that market, Hagerty said. The online and brick-and-mortar site sales both contributed to increased lottery sales in 2020 and 2021.
Vending machines — often found in supermarkets or discount stores like Walmart — have added to lottery patrons’ options.
“A lot of consumers prefer self-service machines because of the control they have with those devices,” said Hagerty. “Retailers also prefer them because they are useful when jackpots for Powerball and Mega Millions get unusually high, and clerks can get busy with people buying tickets.”
Border localities like Bristol and Northern Virginia benefit from out-of-state sales in general, Hagerty said. Out-of-state work commuters and shoppers who come to Virginia often buy gas and food and may buy a scratch or drawing ticket.
WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?
In Virginia, Hagerty said, all profits are dedicated by law to fund state education programs.
The publicity around large Mega Millions and Powerball jackpots comes from them being multistate drawings that can sustain large jackpots, Hagerty said. Scratch tickets, however, are the larger source of lottery revenue.
In Bristol, for the past three years, revenue from drawing tickets sold at physical sites rose from $1.14 million in 2019-20 to $1.39 million in 2020-21 and dropped to $1.13 million for most of 2021-22.
For the same three years in Bristol, scratch ticket sales ran from $5.45 million to $6.69 million and $6.18 million.
Across Bristol and Norton cities and the counties of Washington, Scott, Lee and Wise, drawing ticket sales moved from $6.82 million to $8.07 million and then $6.81 million in the most recent three fiscal years. Scratch ticket sales in the same region for the same periods ran from $32.82 million in 2019-20 to $39.94 million in 2020-21 and $36.88 million through June 21 this year.
In the most recent monthly report for drawing jackpots in the same region, $18,100 was reported in April for prizes $1,000 and larger in all of the lottery’s drawing games.
“Economic conditions do have an impact,” Hagerty added. “When gas prices are high, though, we tend to see decreases in lottery sales at convenience stores.
“People sometimes have a misconception that lottery money goes directly to local schools or that it is what funds education,” Hagerty said. “Lottery profits make up about 10% of all state education funding each year, so it helps fund different things in the education budget.”
Unclaimed lottery prizes after 180 days also go to the state’s Literary Fund, which helps fund school construction projects across Virginia. In 2021, that meant more than $10 million for projects, he added.
With skill games unregulated in Virginia for now, the only visible hint of how they should be used is a placard found on many machines saying that it is unlawful for persons under 18 to play them. As for the odds in playing them, many of those placards add: “The outcome of this game is unregulated by the state.”
Hagerty, whose duties include Virginia Lottery’s “Play Responsibly” program, said the organization works with the Virginia Council on Problem Gambling as well as the National Council on Problem Gambling to educate lottery players about gambling issues.
“We take ‘Play Responsibly’ very seriously,” said Hagerty. “Some people may think there’s no such thing as a gambling addiction, and it’s a matter of being responsible, but gambling addiction is real. “The organizations we work with offer hotline and education services. Virginia Lottery also has a Voluntary Exclusion program where people can choose to be kept from playing the lottery.”
BETTING ON SPORTS
The Virginia Lottery also regulates sports betting in Virginia, and state code section 58.1-4039 prohibits placing or accepting bets on:
• Youth sports
• College sports
• Virginia college sports
Online sports betting started in Virginia in January 2021. According to industry website legalsportsreport.com, betting totaled $4.98 billion from 2021 through April this year. Revenues for gaming operators totaled $422.4 million in the same period, and Virginia has seen $29.8 million in tax revenue
According to Virginia Lottery’s most recent sports wagering report for April, Virginians bet $399.5 million and won $363.2 million that month with 12 licensed mobile betting operators — a 69% increase in betting over April 2021, when bettors had access to seven licensed betting service operators.
From last April’s sports gaming activity, gaming operators made $20.8 million in adjusted gross revenues, and the state’s 15% tax on revenues meant $3.04 million to the state — $2.97 million into the general fund and $76,008.17 for the lottery’s Problem Gambling Treatment and Support Fund.
Pari-mutuel betting on horse racing is allowed and regulated in Virginia by the state Racing Commission. The Colonial Downs racetrack operated an off-track betting site in Weber City until the track closed, which shut down Weber City and five other sites.
The Weber City site is now a church.
A NEW WORLD
Hagerty said a 2019 study by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission projected that five proposed Virginia casinos — including Bristol — would give the state an estimated $260 million total in annual gaming tax revenue compared to the $600 million in annual Virginia Lottery revenue. The projected casinos also would generate about $970 million annually in net gaming revenue.
The Bristol Casino is projected to pay the state $35 million annually in gaming tax with $130 million in annual net gaming revenues.
“We are looking forward to a new world with the casino opening,” Hagerty added.