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Does the government make money from the lottery?

Lotteries are a popular form of gambling in many countries around the world. Players buy tickets with numbers and symbols printed on them, hoping to match the winning combination and claim a monetary prize. Lotteries are typically run by national or regional governments, who use some of the revenue generated from ticket sales to fund public programs and services. This raises an important question – does the government actually make money from lotteries, or do they operate at a loss?

In this article, we’ll examine whether governments profit from lotteries by looking at some quick facts, analyzing the costs involved in running a lottery, and comparing revenue and profits across different lottery systems globally. Understanding the complex financial workings of the lottery business will give insight into this pressing public policy question.

Quick Facts

Lottery ticket sales generate billions in annual revenue

Lotteries generate substantial revenue through ticket sales. In the United States alone, lottery ticket sales totaled over $92 billion in 2021. Worldwide lottery sales exceed $300 billion annually. With so many ticket purchases, it’s clear lotteries bring in huge sums of money each year.

Lotteries contribute funding for public programs and services

A portion of lottery revenue is used to fund government budgets and public services. In the U.S., lotteries contribute over $23 billion annually to state budgets. This money supports education, environmental conservation, infrastructure, and more. The exact allocations vary by state and region. Globally, over $100 billion in lottery profits go towards public good each year.

Lotteries award over $100 billion in prizes annually

Lotteries award sizeable monetary prizes to winners. In 2021, over $100 billion was given out in lottery prizes globally. In the U.S. alone, over $55 billion was awarded. Jackpots can swell to staggering sums for multi-state lotteries like Mega Millions and Powerball, sometimes exceeding half a billion dollars for a single drawing. The amount spent on prizes reduces profitability for lotteries.

Lotteries have substantial operating expenses

In addition to prize payouts, lotteries have considerable operating expenses. These include costs for:

– Ticket printing
– Advertising and marketing
– Staff salaries
– Contracted vendors
– Equipment and infrastructure
– Commissions and incentives for ticket sellers

When combined, operating expenses can consume 20-40% of lottery ticket revenue before any profits are earned.

Lotteries generate large profits for some jurisdictions

While payouts and expenses eat into revenues, some lotteries still produce sizable profits. The top 10 most profitable lotteries globally make over $20 billion in profits annually. Jurisdictions like China, Australia, and several European countries earn billions in net lottery profits each year. However, profitability varies significantly across different regions and lottery systems.

These quick facts demonstrate that lotteries certainly generate substantial sums for public programs through ticket sales. However, high upfront costs make profitability dependent on the lottery’s operational efficiency and ticket demand from players. Next we’ll analyze lottery costs and revenues in detail.

Lottery Costs

Running a government-sponsored lottery has numerous costs. These reduce the net profits available for public services. Major lottery costs include:


The amounts awarded in prizes are the single biggest expense for lotteries. Payout percentages vary across different lottery games, but typically range from 45% to over 70% of total ticket sales. For a lottery selling $1 billion in tickets, this could mean $450 million to $700 million paid back to players as winnings. Prizes entice players to purchase tickets, but cut into potential profits.

Commissions and Incentives

Lotteries pay commissions to licensed retailers who sell tickets. This provides compensation for the costs of equipment, staffing, and overhead needed to sell lottery products. Commissions are typically 4-7% of ticket sales. Lotteries may also offer performance incentives to retailers that hit sales targets. These further increase costs.


Day-to-day lottery operations require substantial staffing, infrastructure, and resources. Employee salaries, benefits, facilities, and overhead for lottery personnel accumulate costs quickly. Contracts for printing, advertising, IT services, and security also add expenses. Additional costs come from equipment, software, inventory management, and telecommunications needs.


While lotteries don’t pay business taxes on revenue, winnings and commissions paid to retailers are taxable. Depending on the jurisdiction, lotteries may have to withhold taxes on prizes and retailer commissions. This reduces the net money available to transfer to government budgets.

Considering these major costs, running a lottery likely requires at least 50% of ticket revenue, and potentially over 70%, before any proceeds can be allocated for public use. Minimizing expenses is therefore crucial for maximizing profitability. Next we’ll look at key revenue sources.

Lottery Revenues

Lotteries derive revenue predominantly from a single source:

Ticket Sales

Ticket purchases generate nearly all lottery revenue. Ticket prices, number and size of games offered, player demographics, marketing and promotion, and economic conditions all influence sales. Revenues rise when ticket prices increase, new games are added, or external factors drive higher demand. Back-of-napkin math shows that a lottery selling $100 million in tickets weekly could generate over $5 billion in annual revenue from this source alone.

Aside from ticket proceeds, lotteries earn comparatively minimal revenue from other sources like:

– Licensing fees from retailers
– Interest income from reserve funds
– Miscellaneous income (e.g. unclaimed prizes)

However, these account for less than 1% of total earnings for most lotteries. Ticket sales are the key determinant of lottery revenues. With costs and revenues in mind, we can now compare profitability across different lottery systems.

Lottery Profitability

Looking at total costs versus revenues shows whether lotteries ultimately make money or operate at a loss. Profitability varies significantly based on factors like:

Household spending on lottery tickets

Places where households spend more of their income on lotteries generate higher ticket sales and revenue. For example, Italians spend over 3 times as much per capita as Americans on lottery tickets. Higher voluntary spending means greater profit potential.

Number and variety of lottery games

Offering more games provides more opportunities for ticket purchases. Varied prize structures and game formats appeal to a wider demographic of players. This expands the customer base and drives up sales.

Prize payout ratio

Keeping prize payouts lower as a percentage of ticket sales increases profits. For example, the Massachusetts Lottery pays out roughly 71% in prizes, retaining over 25% in profits. Meanwhile, the South Dakota Lottery has higher payouts, nearing 81%, and profits under 15%.

Administrative efficiency

Lotteries able to operate with lower overheads and administrative costs retain more revenue as profit. Automation, disciplined budgeting, and effective management control expenses.

Population size

The ultimate source of revenue is players. More potential customers means greater opportunity to generate ticket sales and profits. Jurisdictions with larger populations have inherent advantages attracting players and earning revenues.

We’ll analyze lottery profitability in several example jurisdictions across the world:

United States

U.S. lotteries had combined ticket sales of $92.7 billion in FY 2021. After prizes and expenses, they generated $23.9 billion in profit, a 25.8% profit margin. However, profitability varied widely across different state lotteries from nearly 50% down to under 10% margins. Lotteries in populous states like New York, Massachusetts, and Texas were among the most profitable.


China’s lottery system produced over $75 billion in ticket revenue in 2021. Their payout ratio is fixed below 60%, with operating expenses around 15%. This resulted in nearly $30 billion in profits, an exceptionally high 37% margin. China also benefits from a massive population driving ticket purchases.


Australia’s various regional lottery operators combine to generate about AU$4.5 billion in annual ticket sales. Total profits exceed AU$1 billion, with margins near 22%. Australians are avid lottery players on a per capita basis, contributing to profitability.

United Kingdom

The U.K. National Lottery produced £8.1 billion in ticket sales for 2021/22. After prizes and operating expenses, it retained £1.9 billion in profit, a 23% margin. The National Lottery is one of the few lotteries to sustain high long-term profit margins consistently.


Germany’s lottery revenues neared €8 billion annually in recent years. However, high taxes and restrictions on gaming keep profit margins below 10%. Germany awards over 63% of ticket revenue as prizes and uses 12% for administrative costs. Just €700 million, under 9% of total sales, is retained as profits.

Lottery System Annual Ticket Revenue Profit Margin
United States $92.7 billion 25.8%
China $75 billion 37%
Australia AU$4.5 billion 22%
United Kingdom £8.1 billion 23%
Germany €8 billion 9%

This data shows that while some lotteries are hugely profitable, others struggle to break even. Where lotteries fall in the range depends significantly on demographics, efficient operations, and player demand.

Key Factors in Lottery Profitability

Reviewing the financial performance of various lottery systems, we can highlight key factors that determine profitability:

– Popularity with players drives ticket sales
– Broad variety of lottery games appeals to wider demographics
– Advertising increases public awareness and ticket purchases
– Efficient operations control administrative costs
– Lower prize payout rates improve profit retention
– Larger potential markets increase customer base
– Higher disposable incomes mean greater spending on tickets
– Low taxes allow lotteries to retain higher net revenues

Lotteries able to leverage these profit drivers have greater ability to raise money for public budgets. However, profits come at the expense of players overall, who fund government services with their ticket purchases. There are also ethical considerations around excessive gambling and manipulating lottery designs to increase government revenue.

Public policymakers must strike a balance between profitability, responsible gambling practices, and fairness to players. Ultimately, the extent to which lotteries can reliably provide net financial gains to the public depends on how they are operated.


Lotteries certainly generate large gross revenues through high ticket sales. However, substantial costs for prizes, commissions, administration, and operations significantly reduce net profits. Across global lottery systems, profit margins range widely based on efficiency, player demand, and other factors. While well-run lotteries can produce over 25% profit margins, others may barely break even or operate at a loss. On the whole, lotteries must be carefully managed to optimize revenues and costs if they aim to consistently and substantially benefit public budgets. The lottery business involves complex trade-offs between profitability, responsible gambling, and public perceptions. Further study and oversight are warranted to ensure lottery operations align with overall public interests.