RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina’s lottery — looking for that next game or technology to generate more sales and profits for public education — is taking it slow on expanding further online sales as traditional lottery retailers and social conservatives express reservations.
The North Carolina Education Lottery Commission placed on its agenda for its quarterly meeting the topic of “digital instants” — essentially the electronic equivalent of scratch-off tickets that players can try to win big cash prizes from their desktops or smartphones. Gamblers would pay to play using their debit cards or checking accounts. But discussion was muted Tuesday and commissioners moved quickly to the next topic.
The lottery already lets players buy tickets through its website for big jackpot drawings. Commission Chairman Courtney Crowder said the panel has been talking about expanding online games for months, but it pulled back on the instant ticket idea for at least the short term in response to some opposition.
In recent days, the North Carolina Retail Merchants Association asked state legislators to step in and scrutinize the idea closely, while the N.C. Family Policy Council asked commissioners to oppose the expansion.
“We wanted to make sure that they all knew that we did in fact take their concerns seriously,” Crowder told reporters.
The lottery has seen increased sales annually since starting in 2006, reaching $2.4 billion last year, with $622.5 million in net earnings for education initiatives. North Carolina and other state lotteries are on a search to attract new, younger players more comfortable with computers.
“It is critical that we maintain product relevance and diversify our product mix,” Georgia Lottery spokeswoman Tandi Reddick said. Georgia, Kentucky and Michigan’s lotteries already offer digital instants to players. North Carolina state law allows the lottery commission to approve any game that another state lottery already offers.
An outside performance audit of North Carolina’s lottery projected online games could bring in $130 million in new revenues over five years. But North Carolina stores that sell traditional scratch-off ticket are worried they’ll lose players and sales for other products they sell.
“This is a major shift in policy and strategy for selling lottery tickets that we feel is deserving of a more thorough dialogue,” association President Andy Ellen wrote to legislators last week.
Conservative Christians opposed to gambling say the digital instants look too much like video sweepstakes games that North Carolina lawmakers have passed multiple laws to eradicate. It’s a comparison to which lottery officials strongly object.
Allowing the lottery to offer digital instant games would be “a huge expansion of gambling in our state,” N.C. Family Policy Council President John Rustin told reporters. In a letter to commissioners, Rustin said the easy online play would lead to more problems with gambling addiction.
It’s unclear whether that would happen because the games are new and target younger, middle-class men, said Lia Nower, director of the Center for Gambling Studies at Rutgers University. Traditional scratch-off ticket players tend to be older, come from a lower socioeconomic category and haven’t shown much interest in playing online, she said in an interview.
With younger players, “it’s a whole different demographic, and they get bored easily,” Nower said.