O’Leary: Edmonton ramping up for 50/50 frenzy

It’s usually at the start of every summer, and through weeks like this one that Connor Croken’s phone starts to buzz again like it did around this time three years ago.

“Every season it kind of turns back on,” Croken says over the phone from Edmonton. “Yeah, usually around the beginning of the season people start thinking of me again.”

What he thought would be his 15-minutes of fame has an annual five or 10-minute reprisal. Croken, now 23, won a record-setting $348,534 50-50 jackpot at an Esks game on July 25, 2014. What sparked that chaotic night was an unclaimed jackpot of $71,732 from the previous Esks game at Commonwealth Stadium.

Edmonton is buzzing again this week under bigger circumstances. An $82,060 prize from the Esks’ June 30th home opener went unclaimed. It’s sitting in the pot for this week’s game, as the Eskimos host the Ottawa REDBLACKS.

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“It was hectic. It was like I was famous,” Croken says of the weeks that followed his life-changing win. “People were asking me for pictures, people were coming up to me asking for their money back. It was a month of that and then it kind of cooled off.

“Someone on Friday is going to get very lucky and maybe be able to turn their life around, hopefully, or start a new career. That’s what I did and I’m forever thankful for it.”

When he won the money, Croken was an oilfield worker. He’s since followed in his father’s footsteps and taken a job with Investors Group.

“(I’ll always remember) the life-changing aspect of it,” he says. “Now I’m helping other people with their money.”

Allan Watt, who has put his retirement on hiatus to lend a hand as a spokesperson for the Eskimos this season, thinks this carryover jackpot could take the same track it did three years ago, cash-wise.

“Everything is tracking for the same way. It’s a mirror image of what took place before. The same kind of excitement, same kind of buzz around the city,” he says.

Over the years at Commonwealth Stadium, there have been bigger crowds — the July 24 game between the Esks and Stampeders drew 40,066 fans, but the stadium holds 56,302 people — and higher stakes. While Calgary and Edmonton were both undefeated when they met, the playoffs were still more than three months away.

But as anyone that was at the game that night could attest, it had an energy of its own, from the moment the gates opened.

“We knew it was going to be busy but we had no idea what was going to happen,” says Iain MacLean, the head coach of the junior football Edmonton Huskies. Both the Huskies and their CJFL counterparts, the Edmonton Wildcats, have players sell 50-50 tickets at games. Both clubs, along with the University of Alberta Golden Bears football team and other local minor football programs, benefit from the other half of the 50-50.

MacLean wasn’t there that night, but he was coordinating with his players, making sure everyone had made it there and knew what they had to be doing. Thousands of people poured into the stadium, looking for the bright yellow vest of the ticket salesmen. The young players didn’t have to walk around the concourse, like on a regular night. People came to them.

“It was crazy. We had people, they would walk out with tickets and they had tons of people all around them, they couldn’t walk around,” MacLean says. “People were just right there.”

The lineups snaked their way through the stadium’s wide concourse, filling it with people for the majority of the game.

“I don’t think any CFL team — and this one was fortunate to have that happen — but I don’t think anybody could have been ready for what happened,” Watt says.

“What I do remember about it is we said the next day, ‘We’ve got to get more handheld (ticketing) devices and now we have that and between then and now…we have a brand-new platform that we work off of, so it’s faster.

“But what happened was the people stayed in their normal traffic patterns and then another seven or eight or 9,000 people stayed in that pattern. That is to arrive halfway though the national anthem, get a beer and a hot dog and then go get a 50-50 ticket and be in your seats by the time the anthem is over. That just can’t happen when you want to buy a 50-50 ticket and so does everybody else. The whole process is about getting people here earlier.”

It didn’t get ugly, but it got tense. Fans grew impatient as they waited in line and watched the volunteers run out of paper. Police were on hand and stood next to ticket sellers to ensure everyone’s safety.

“It’s the most insane I’ve ever seen it,” then-Wildcats QB Jordan Olson told the Edmonton Journal. On a normal night, he said, he’d change the paper in his dispenser once. He changed it seven times that night.

As deep as the lines ran around the building, the pot was growing just as quickly. It was already at $156,000 as the Eskimos were introduced. It was over $315,000 at halftime. By then, the action in the concourse was running parallel to what was happening on the field. Shots of the lineups made their way on to TV and were shared on social media.

“I sold 50-50 tickets for five years when I played. I sold them at a Grey Cup game,” MacLean says. “And I’ve never seen anything like that.”

Overwhelmed by the demand for tickets, it took the Eskimos organization until the early hours of the morning to split the 170,000 tickets sold. One of the biggest boos of the night came when it was announced that the winner of the 50-50 couldn’t be determined until the next morning on the team’s website.

Croken got his tickets early in the game. He bought $40 worth of tickets for his parents and $60 for himself. His ringing phone woke him on the morning of July 25. His friend that he was at the game with told him he was about 20 numbers off on the winning number and that he thought Croken might have the ticket.

“I actually showed up before anybody from the Eskimos organization,” Croken says. “I think I got there quarter after eight. I remember the janitor said, ‘You must be here to claim the 50-50.’”

“I remember thinking, ‘I think the paperboy just won $340,000,’” Watt laughs.

“He was the nicest guy. It changed his life. He bought a house and he was lucky to be in a family where his father was an investment advisor and that’s what he’s doing now.

“It’s such a good story. The other $340,000 went to support amateur football. We get to give over the course of the year, six, seven hundred thousand to the junior football programs, the university program, to Football Alberta. There’s no other team in the league that’s doing that.”

“If it wasn’t for the support from the Eskimos, we do not exist,” MacLean says. “At all.

“We’re going to travel all the way to Windsor this year and our hope is to go to Ontario twice this season. We can’t do that without this program.”

While big 50-50s aren’t exclusive to Edmonton — the Riders spotted their stadium-opening 50-50 with $100,000 and paid out $277,000 to Darren Schnell on July 3 — these absurd totals happen in Edmonton fairly regularly. The Oilers’ first playoff home game in April had a $76,125 carryover from the regular-season and ballooned to $336,995. It’s commonplace for an Esks 50-50 to get into the $70,000 range most games.

“This is the only place that…I’ve been to Toronto games before and their 50-50s don’t get past $10,000. I have no idea,” Croken says. “It must be the adrenalin of it, of hoping to win, just like buying lottery tickets.”

“I don’t know (why) and part of me doesn’t want to stick my hand in the coyote’s cage,” Watt says, laughing. “But it’s really unique to Edmonton. It happens in curling rinks, it happens in hockey rinks and it for sure happens at Commonwealth Stadium.

“Do I have an answer for how it got started, or why it’s so popular? I wish. I’d bottle it and sell it everywhere I could.”

Croken was at the Eskimos’ opener this year and saw that the 50-50 went unclaimed. He dug through some old Facebook messages this past week and laughed to himself about the volume and randomness of the people that reached out to him after his life-changing payday.

He’s bought a house, taken some nice trips, paid off the truck he bought when he had a different life as an oilworker. The rest, he said, he’s invested and is hoping to retire a couple years early.

He’s been a regular at Esks games over the last three years, but he hasn’t bought a 50-50 ticket since. He knows the pot starts $10,000 higher than it did for him and he laughs a little.

“I might have to change that on Friday,” he says