Oilers’ Playoff 50/50 Debacle: What Went Wrong?

Albertans like games of chance. It could be that the Edmonton Oilers’ domination of the NHL draft lottery in the early 2010s gives us the feeling that we’re good at these things, or it might have been the boom years, causing many in the province to have the disposable income for tickets, but whatever the reason, we love things like the 50/50 draws that happen at every Oilers home game.

Connor McDavid
Getting the opportunity to select Connor McDavid at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft is perhaps the Oilers’ most famous lottery win (OHL Images)

While prize draws in other National Hockey League arenas can be in the neighbourhood of hundreds or perhaps a couple thousand dollars, in Edmonton, $80,000 split two ways is reasonable for a Tuesday evening regular-season game. Improvements in technology and a move toward more cashless purchasing has driven those numbers up from a couple of years back.

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The other club in town, currently known as the Edmonton Football Team, had a large pot go unclaimed back in 2014. Rolling it over to the next game resulted in a sellout, hour-long ticket lines, and an over $300,000 windfall for one lucky fan. It was this prize that seemed to demonstrate the voracious Albertan appetite for big 50/50 pots, and that draw was the seed from which recent legislative changes in the province grew.

It’s for a Good Cause

There is an obvious benefit for the charities attached to these lotteries when the prizes grow to these proportions. Bigger prizes mean by definition that the 50 percent going to charitable causes grows as well. The tweaks made by the Alberta Gaming and Lottery Commission, allowing Albertans to purchase tickets online during the preliminary round of the playoffs, was the first time such a well-known draw could be accessed by the province’s entire population. (from ‘Albertans to gain more access to 50/50 draws via online sales,’ Calgary Herald, 07/11/2020)

The experience was underwhelming for most Albertan, not only because the Oilers’ playoff hopes were dashed rather quickly, but the Oilers Community Foundation, Remax Realty, and the IT company contracted to manage the technical aspects of the draws made several missteps. Most noticeable was the severe underestimation of the demand, and how that demand would increase exponentially as word of the huge cash prizes got out.

Bob Nicholson
CEO, Vice-Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group as well as a board member of the Oilers Community Foundation, Bob Nicholson (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

From Game 1 of the preliminary round versus the Chicago Blackhawks, there were issues, both on the ice and online. The Oilers fell 6-4 while the draw, meant to be open until 10:30 P.M., was shut down early due to the network being unable to handle the traffic. Despite all the difficulties, the pot grew to over $700,000, meaning both the charity and the winner received in excess of $350,000 ($381,275 to be precise). Tim Shipton, Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications for the Oilers Entertainment Group said the following after the game:

“They had to up the processing capacity but the volume simply overwhelmed it. A lesson learned.”

A lesson learned indeed. Game 2’s draw should have had no difficulties since, having seen the massive interest and corresponding traffic levels, the technical company managing that portion of the contest could adjust their setup to accommodate the traffic. This would not be the case though. Game 2, where Connor McDavid almost singlehandedly gave the Oilers the win, was another loss when it came to executing the 50/50 draw. With the social buzz created by the first draw, the traffic increased substantially, and whatever preparations had been made were not enough.

One lucky person didn’t mind the hassle though. While Game 1 had set an Oilers record for a 50/50 prize, Game 2 would set a world record, more than doubling the previous mark set by fans in Vancouver back in 2018. Again a win for charity, with the other $1.6 million going to good causes as well, but many voiced concerns about being unable to access the site, or being unsure if their transaction had been processed. Still, the online excitement for the large prizes was growing.

Records Stacked on Records

Game 3 was a replica of Game 2, with an even larger prize. The winner, who has remained anonymous, sparking some online conspiracy theories, took home $2.7 million. The world record, set only two days earlier, had been crushed. If only the EOG, Remax and their IT partner could get the system working properly, the demand for this contest was unthinkably high. For comparison, the 2019 annual report for the Oilers Community Foundation claimed to have reinvested $4.3 million in the community. In the first three playoff games alone, they’d gathered $4.7 million.

Milan Lucic Oilers
Milan Lucic, Former Edmonton Oiler whose signing was a gamble the Oiler lost. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Game 4 was a do or die for the Oilers. Bad bounces and some questionable line combinations had put them in a hole in the short best-of-five series, and it was win or go home time. The 50/50 had reached epic proportions, and everyone wondered what additional steps the team had taken to ensure all could access the site. Surely after three test runs the kinks would be ironed out. After all, the story had made international headlines, and with more than half of the playoff games planned for the Edmonton bubble, the team and community foundation would want to show their best.

Gridlock. From the moment the draw opened, people online were complaining that they couldn’t access ticket sales. Somehow, despite the massive backlog and common stories of landing webpage timing out, the sales totals continued to grow, AND GROW! As did the errors. People in neighbouring Sherwood Park starting getting a message that they’d been geofenced out, like a smaller version of Wexit. The errors grew, and people all over Alberta were finding themselves denied access based on location. Meanwhile, the team lost Game 4 and were out of the playoffs once again.

The Massive Payday Was Delayed

When all was said and done, the pot looked to be over $15 million (split two ways). A previously unthinkable total! Across the province, people waited with anticipation for the 10:30 P.M. draw. The time came and went, and no winner was announced. Online, tempers started to flare. People who had gotten through were saying they’d been charged over and over, despite only receiving a single set of numbers. Others, despite trying for hours, had never made it to the confirmation page.

The Oilers Community Foundation made a couple announcements over the following days, basically assuring people that the integrity of the draw was intact, but that they were working with the Alberta Gaming and Lottery Commission to correct the many identified issues with the massive contest. Many, many refunds were processed, bringing the final total to $14.3 million, down from well over $15 million. In the end, it took more days to choose a winning ticket than the Oilers had been in the playoffs. A winner was finally announced on Aug. 26, nearly three weeks later.

Lessons Were Hopefully Learned…

So is this a good news story, with millions being raised for charity? Or is it a tale of poor planning and poorer reactions, wasting the opportunity to do so much more for the community? It’s hard to decide. Had the Oilers played another game two nights later, there likely wouldn’t have been a draw. They might have needed to make the Cup Final in order to see any further fundraising, as the site was finally active again for Game 1 between the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning. A tall order for the roster that lost to 12th-place Chicago.

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The concept of a management group in Edmonton looking at the tools in front of them and overestimating their ability and preparedness is nothing new. After all, depending on your definition of this year’s playoff participation, it could be said that the team possessing Connor McDavid has only went to the dance once in the first third of his career. So as former teammate Patrick Maroon attempts to win his second straight Cup inside Rogers Place in downtown Edmonton, the Oilers once again watch from outside the bubble. A disappointing end to a promising season.

Pat Maroon, Alex Pietrangelo
St. Louis Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo hands the Stanley Cup to Pat Maroon during the Blues’ NHL hockey Stanley Cup victory celebration in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The 50/50 lottery did return for the Cup Final but with participation that barely compares to the heady days of August. Prizes of $400,000, $500,000 and $650,000 would have made headlines back in July, but now we know the former heights the contest reached, and we are underwhelmed.

Some things never change though, as this writer attempted to buy into what may be the last contest of the playoffs. Instead of a shot at something in the neighbourhood of half a million dollars, I received an error message and saved $50.

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