WATERLOO REGION — Go Rangers Go, fans are screaming as junior hockey playoffs start Friday. But maybe the real excitement is around the soaring 50/50 draw.
Perhaps you heard about the monster $24,440 pot won last Friday at the Kitchener Rangers' last game of the regular season. It's by far the biggest pot ever seen, more than doubling the season high reached just two Fridays ago.
The 50/50 draw is pretty much out of control thanks to a new electronic system that's driving ticket sales ever higher and building crazy drama inside the auditorium.
The midpoint of winning pots for this regular season is $6,346 (half the pots were bigger, half smaller). This compares to a midpoint of $4,275 over the past five regular seasons.
That's up 48 per cent, showering more cash on winners and on minor sports, scholarship students and charities that benefit from the other half of the money gambled.
There's talk that game pots might reach $15,000 if the Rangers advance deeper into the playoffs. Recent playoff games typically generated pots of $6,105.
Rangers superfan Linda Tester, 49, has won the 50/50 draw twice, once under the new system that launched this season and once under the old.
Her total haul: $11,880 after betting about $3,000 over six seasons. She spent her winnings to pay off bills and to help send her kids and their families to Disney World.
She bets $20 at every game she attends with her season tickets. She takes the ribbing in stride as she collects her winnings. And she hopes for a three-peat.
On Feb. 2 she collected $7,680. "Again Linda? Really?" she heard.
"I don't even do lotto tickets," Tester said. Twice she's visited Las Vegas without gambling a dime there. But like many who play the 50/50, she doesn't see it as gambling.
"With 50/50 I don't care if I win or if I lose. It's still going back to the community in which I live, to help somebody else out," she said.
You'll find Tester at most Rangers games unless an usher taps her and she has to leave early. That's not because she's misbehaving. It's because it has started to snow and her family is in the business of selling salt and plowing snow.
So she leaves a hockey game to go plow. Is there anything more Canadian?
Here's how the 50/50 draw worked until this season. You were handed tickets. The entire arena waited until the third period to hear the size of the pot and the winning number. Then you fumbled through your tickets to see if you won.
Now your numbers are printed sequentially on a single receipt pushed out by a handheld device. You look to the arena scoreboard to see the pot growing in real time, dollar by dollar. Everyone sees how big it's getting.
"As it hits certain plateaus, people get encouraged to spend more money," said Rick Weinstein, longtime 50/50 co-ordinator for the Kitchener Sports Association, which operates the draw. "It's the same mentality as when Lotto Max goes to $50 million. People buy more tickets."
"We've engaged a lot more people, rather than just getting more money from the same people. It surprised me," said Norm Foss, a former president of the sports association. "It creates a real buzz in the building because on a good night fans can take home amounts of money that can change their life's experience."
With the new system Tester finds numbers easier to read and to check. She sees friends buying numbers who never played before. The growing pot grabs attention.
"People start talking about it at intermission," she said. "It actually grows suspense and it's kind of fun."
Last Friday Tester and Weinstein were amazed to watch the pot climb into the stratosphere. To help celebrate Fan Appreciation Night, organizers promoted a special 50/50 in advance, offering twice the numbers for $20.
Some fans pooled money. People at the game got texts from friends outside the game who heard about the soaring pot.
"We had $10,000 on the prize board before the puck dropped," Weinstein said. "It became a frenzy. It was chaos. That number was spinning like crazy. It just wouldn't stop."
Most Ontario Hockey League teams are now using the new electronic system for 50/50 draws, provided by a private firm owned by Gaming Nation Inc.
It uses hardware, software and the internet to record and display sales in real time, generating rich sales data that can be analyzed to help sell even more.
Transaction fees charged by the firm are a new fundraising cost. But there are savings. Government fees have been slashed. Tickets no longer have to be printed. And sales have soared, putting charities farther ahead.
"We're way ahead of the game," Weinstein said.
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