High-tech 50-50 draw creates its own buzz at world junior hockey tournament

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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A tiny company based in Prince Edward Island is creating a big buzz at the world junior hockey championship in Saskatoon.
The two-year-old Summerside-based firm, 50/50 Central, has developed innovative software and wireless technology that has given a modern, high-speed twist to a long-standing rinkside tradition: the 50-50 draw.
The electronic system allows ticket buyers to see how big the pot has grown every time a ticket is purchased, an obvious and immediate incentive that has translated into rapidly growing prize pools and added excitement in the stands.
On New Year's Eve, when Canada defeated the United States 5-4 in a shootout, the 15,000 fans at Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon purchased $187,050 worth of 50-50 tickets, creating a cash prize of more than $93,000.
That's almost $12.50 per person in ticket sales.
Blair Smith, the company's co-owner, says it was the largest pot at the 31-game tournament and by far the biggest prize delivered by 50/50 Central's technology.
Smith says ticket sales on Tuesday night, when Canada takes on the United States for the gold medal, are expected to top $200,000.
"When you jump over $10 a head ... those are huge numbers," Smith said in an interview from Saskatoon.
The tournament's host committee had a licence to sell $1.5 million worth of 50-50 tickets, but it recently applied for a $2 million threshold.
Craig Sled, assistant vice-president of marketing for the host committee, said the group had expected about $600,000 in ticket sales, based on the two previous world junior hockey championships in Ottawa and Vancouver.
"We're overwhelmed," he said. "There's just no other word for it. ... We're totally blown away."
At each game, spectators can purchase tickets from one of 14 roving vendors carrying a handheld, wireless terminal and a tiny, wireless printer. Tickets are also available from vendors seated at eight, wired terminals around the arena.
Every time someone buys a ticket - 1 for $5; 3 for $10; and 10 for $20 - the new total for the draw is immediately beamed to all of the closed-circuit televisions in the stadium.
"We're on there all the time, whether it's a little bug in the corner or it's full-screen," Smith says.
The total is also shown on the electronic score clock at centre ice during announcements and each intermission.
During games, as the jackpot displayed on the Jumbotron rises rapidly, the lineups grow longer for tickets and the banter in the stands often turns to the interactive lottery.
"As they watch it grow and grow, what we're seeing is a lot of people coming back ... and buying more," Sled says. "We're seeing a lot of people spending $100, $200 ... and they're buying for family and friends. ... A couple of our winners haven't even been to a game yet."
The host committee will use its share of the proceeds to pay for the tournament. The net profit will be funnelled into minor hockey programs.
Smith says his company charges for support and maintenance, and it also gets a percentage of the total revenue, but he won't say how much.
The company has only five employees, including Smith and co-owner George Roberts of Kensington, P.E.I.
The 50/50 Central system is already being used by non-profit organizations affiliated with the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Bruins, the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League and three teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey league.
Several other organizations with hockey and baseball teams in Ontario and Quebec have also signed up, but they have yet to be listed on 50/50 Central's website.
Smith said his partner came up with the concept while sitting in a shopping mall in Montreal in 2006.
"He was trying to figure out a better way to skin the cat," said Smith, who lives in Summerside.
"We soon came to realize that is was all about the accountability. When you make a sale ... the individual buying sees the pot increase right away. They know it's in the pot. ... In any cash business, accountability is important."
So far, the electronic system can only handle cash transactions. But it will soon take credit cards.
There are no plans to add an online component because that would be illegal, Smith adds.

Organizations: Credit Union Centre, Boston Red Sox, Boston Bruins Portland Pirates American Hockey League

Geographic location: Saskatoon, Canada, Prince Edward Island United States Ottawa Vancouver Quebec Kensington Ontario Montreal Summerside

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