Struggling economy, smoking ban, skill games take bite out of profits

Bingo cards are placed neatly in front of them. Colorful daubers are lined up within grasp. They’ve gotten food from the concession stand, and paper bags are by their feet to dispose of used cards. It’s showtime.

Five minutes later, the games start. Shelby Wright, of Zanesville, and Tina Maxwell, of Dresden, are focused, scanning their cards for the numbers called out and displayed on the video monitors.

As more numbers are called in each play, the chatter picks up and excitement brews. When someone yells “bingo,” it is met with a collective
groan and simultaneous crumpling of paper.

It’s Wednesday night at MASS Bingo in Zanesville, and the room is crowded. But it used to be full for every game, said Wright, whose bingo-playing days outdate the daubers and video monitors.

It’s a typical story across the state, with nonprofits hosting bingo games seeing a decline in revenues and profits. Many organizations have dropped traditional bingo altogether in favor of pull-tab games.

Observers point to a number of causes: the Great Recession, the 2006 smoking ban, the invasion of skill games and casinos moving in within an hour’s drive of the state borders.

Statewide, bingo parlors made about $142.2 million in 2009 from traditional bingo and instant games — down from $196.7 million in 2006, a 28 percent drop, according to figures reported to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.

MASS Bingo benefits the Animal Shelter Society in Zanesville. The organization is doing better than most bingo halls, but annual profits are down almost $60,000 since 2006.

Some statewide nonprofits hope the Legislature will allow them to put electronic bingo machines in their halls, in hopes of recouping revenues.

“Right now, nobody is generating a lot of income for anything,” said Bob Funk, quartermaster for Ohio’s Veterans of Foreign Wars. “People don’t have a lot of money to spend.”

David Cziraky, director of Rescue One, an exotic-animal sanctuary in Lancaster, said his revenues are down from instant bingo games. For him, it’s because of the economy.

“It’s been kind of rough,” he said. “We’ve been lucky; we’ve gotten donations from other places, which made up for it. Bingo revenue is just not what it used to be.”

Smoking ban

Just before the games started at MASS Bingo, about 15 people were outside the hall, inhaling their last breaths of nicotine and flicking their cigarette butts into buckets next to the doors.

In 2006, one of the hall’s two rooms was filled with smoke, but no longer, after a statewide smoking ban took effect in 2007.

“I wish they’d at least put up a shelter, instead of keeping us out here in the cold,” said bingo player Mary Murphy, who said she has been playing for years and loves the game. “We’ve lost a lot of people.”

Bingo parlors adjusted by taking more breaks during the games. Also, more charities have shifted to pull-tab tickets, making smoking less of an issue.

“There was some drop in revenue at the posts, especially posts with older members,” Funk said. “World War II vets are big smokers and big supporters of the posts. When they couldn’t smoke in the posts anymore, they still went, but didn’t stay as long.”

Don Lanthorn, department service director for the Ohio American Legion, said the ban didn’t have much influence on the organization’s posts. At traditional games, smokers who left were replaced by those who never came because of the smoke, he said.

Larry Hostetler, executive director of the Animal Shelter Society, which operates MASS Bingo, said attendance decreased at first, but it picked back up.

“A lot of people didn’t want to be in a facility for four or five hours and not be able to smoke,” he said.

Skill games

Across town, Michele Wilson, manager of Sunrise Bingo in Zanesville, points to another cause for declining revenues: skill games.

In 2009, the parlor, which raises money for Holy Trinity Mission Church, took in just half of what it did in 2005.

Wilson is highly critical of skill-game operations, and she said the state could do a better job regulating them.

“(Skill games) are all over this town, especially on the county side,” she said.

Skill games expanded rapidly across Ohio in 2006. In October 2007, Gov. Ted Strickland signed a law that bans cash payouts on skill games and limits prizes to merchandise worth $10 or less.

Lanthorn and Funk agree skill games have chipped away at instant-bingo revenues.

“Skill games hurt everybody,” Funk said.

At MASS Bingo, Boyce said she plays skill games but still comes to bingo regularly.

“There’s not much else to do when you’re getting older,” she said.

Hostetler said skill games have not had as much of an effect on his parlor.
“People are going to enjoy whatever form of gaming they like,” he said.

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