Pirates fans are taking a chance on PNC Park raffles

Fans wait for the gates to open at the home plate entrance before the Pirates game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, June 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Fans wait for the gates to open at the home plate entrance before the Pirates game against the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday, June 30, 2013, at PNC Park.
Photo by Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Chris Harlan
| Sunday, July 28, 2013, 10:20 p.m.

While the Pirates pursue their first winning season in two decades, ballpark vendor Dylan Solar finds fans who wish to win exactly half.

Not half of 162 games.

They want half of $23,000 — or more.

For the first time, the Pirates are holding charity raffles at each game this season at PNC Park, and five-figure jackpots have become common. The winning ticket-holder takes half of the money, and Pirates Charities keeps the other half.

Three entries cost $5. Ten entries cost $10. Forty entries, $20.

The first-place St. Louis Cardinals will be in town on Monday for a five-game series that's expected to draw significant crowds, and a few lucky fans will have added reason to cheer.

“Everybody loves a 50/50 at their local softball field, so this is just on a grander stage with 30,000 friends to help throw in,” said Solar, 23, of Franklin Park, who once sold $80 in entries to a single fan. “Overall, people are really excited about it. Every game I get regulars.”

As the PNC Park crowds have grown this summer, so have the jackpots. The pot totaled less than $3,000 on some early-April nights, but it reached a season-high $23,146 on July 13, the Saturday before the All-Star break. More than $51,000 was spent on raffle tickets during that three-game series with the Mets.

The $23,000 jackpot had 31,395 entries.

This crucial Cardinals series could bring even more.

“At the beginning, it was a little slow because nobody knew about it,” Solar said. “As we've gone on, especially more recently, people have really warmed up to it.”

‘A win-win for everybody'

Raffles in professional sports stadiums were illegal in Pennsylvania until last year when state lawmakers updated the Small Games of Chance Act. The Pirates and the National Hockey League's Philadelphia Flyers supported the legislation, said Patty Paytas, the Pirates' senior vice president for community and public affairs.

A number of major-league baseball teams hold similar raffles, but 50/50 drawings have been a Canadian hockey rink tradition for a long time, Paytas said.

“We've been told anecdotally about some unbelievable pots that were generated at some of those games,” she said.

Expanding on that Canadian tradition, the Penguins and Flyers each held 50/50 raffles this season. The Penguins chose a different charity each night and collected a season-high $32,858 jackpot on April 27 for Junior Achievement of Western Pa. The Flyers routinely raised more than $50,000 a night, with an $85,595 jackpot earmarked for Boston Marathon bombing victims.

Now baseball has embraced the raffles.

The Arizona Diamondbacks announced that their July 5 raffle would benefit Arizona wildfire victims, and the team sold more than $100,000 worth of entries for that night's game against the Colorado Rockies. The fan holding ticket A-98867 won $50,008.

The Toronto Blue Jays, Cincinnati Reds, Minnesota Twins, Atlanta Braves, Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox all offer 50/50 raffles. The Tigers began theirs in 2008, and the Brewers have held them since 2010.

“We love it,” Paytas said. “It's a lot of fun for the fans, and all of the money does go to charity. It's a win-win for everybody.”

Positive reaction

Smaller-scale raffles have been a staple of Friday night high school football in Western Pennsylvania for years. With 50/50 tickets already popular, buying them at PNC Park was natural for many.

“When I go (to high school games), I always buy tickets,” said Don Santore of Smock. “Obviously, it's a way bigger jackpot here, so I'll take a chance.”

Unlike the 50/50 raffles at high school games, there are no rolls of colored tickets in PNC Park, and the winner isn't sent scurrying to the car with handfuls of cash.

“We've heard that that happens in some of the arenas in Canada,” Paytas said. “We thought: ‘Oh, my gosh! We can't do that.'”

Pointstreak 5050, a Canadian software company from Prince Edward Island, oversees the Pirates' raffles. Once the winner completes the required documents, he or she receives a check within a few weeks, less 25 percent for federal income taxes.

Vickie Guido of Belle Vernon celebrated the Fourth of July by winning half of a $13,410 jackpot. A frequent participant in 50/50 raffles, she said this was her second try in PNC Park.

From their infield box seats, she had friends double-check one of her 40 entries with the winning number on the scoreboard.

“I just kept saying: ‘I think I won! I think I won!'” Guido said. “I was shaking, and I couldn't believe it.”

On a busy night, 10 vendors in gold vests explore the PNC Park crowd, selling tickets from hand-held devices that produce paper printouts similar in size to a grocery-store receipt. The Pirates have a stationary kiosk in the main concourse and one on the suites level.

“Your chance to win big bucks with the Bucs!” vendor Mary Wetzel, a Duquesne Heights resident, shouted while working the outfield kiosk. Her booth had a steady supply of customers until sales were halted as planned at the end of the sixth inning. The winning number, selected randomly by computer, was announced during the eighth inning.

“The reaction has been positive,” Wetzel said. “You can tell, because (sales) have picked up. People are very generous.”

Kathy Bennett of Carnegie, who buys 50/50 tickets when she visits the ballpark, was among those who purchased tickets from Wetzel. Bennett wanted to win, but mostly considered her purchase a charitable donation.

“Anything for charity,” she said. “The Pirates are wonderful for the work they do with kids and their involvement with the Miracle (League) Field in Cranberry.”

The Pirates are funding construction of another such field in Indiana County, Paytas said, making it the seventh Miracle League program the team has sponsored. Raffle money helps fund the fields for special-needs children, along with other charitable work.

The raffles have raised more than $200,000 for Pirates Charities.

Jackie Hunter, a Pirates employee who helps manage the raffle, said the best moments are when winners arrive at guest services to claim their prize.

“They're standing by the window shaking the ticket,” she said with a laugh. “It's always fun.”

Chris Harlan is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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