Conference Showcases New Products to Revitalize Bingo

12 March 2002

by David Strow

LAS VEGAS --If you wanted to gamble legally 30 years ago, there were only a few choices.

You could take a trip to Las Vegas. In some states, you could go to a racetrack or buy a lottery ticket.

But in many states, the option was limited to only one -- head to a local church or YMCA for a game of bingo.

Bingo still remains a favorite pastime for millions of Americans. Each year, an estimated 60 million Americans play the game, wagering around $10 billion. But as casino gambling spreads across the country, charity bingo is starting to feel the squeeze.

"When a new casino opens, you'll see charitable gaming drop off 20 percent to 30 percent," said Bob Fulton, vice president of marketing for Arrow International Inc., a Cleveland-based manufacturer of bingo equipment and supplies. "In time, charitable bingo will come back, but it might be down 5 to 10 percent from where it was."

At Bingo World, an industry conference held last week at the Riviera, bingo managers from around the country got a look at the new ideas manufacturers are pitching to help bingo regain its edge against the spread of commercial gambling.

Fulton's company markets one of the more traditional methods -- the "pull tab" ticket, which resembles a scratch-off lottery ticket. By selling these tickets, Fulton estimates a $1,000-per-night game can generate $4,000 or $5,000 per night.

But other manufacturers are looking at ways to inject the flavor of Las Vegas into charitable bingo games across the country.

One idea is marketed by Jem Star Enterprises, a company based in Lantana, Fla. Michael DeSalvo, founder of the company, showed off a machine that closely resembled a video keno game you might find at a Las Vegas casino. Developed for Louisiana charity bingo parlors, "Bayou Bingo" lets players play up to four bingo games every 30 seconds.

Elsewhere, Jem Star sells machines that look and play like slots, but pay off in tickets that can be redeemed for prizes or for bingo cards.

"We think these can bring the charities back to life," DeSalvo said. "There's a huge market for this across the country."

Then there's "Match Pair Bingo," created by Las Vegas Gaming Inc. and marketed by Reno-based GameTech International. The game is played at a six-position blackjack-style table, with a bingo ball blower in the corner. Players bet against each other, trying to guess which letter -- B, I, N, G or O -- will pop up next. The house's take is an ante bet that must be placed by each player before each draw.

"There's been a lot of interest," said Mark Sammon, director of GameTech's Northeastern region. "Once you get a good table game going, you can get 30 or 40 games an hour. It's a way to add a casino atmosphere to bingo."

Then there's electronic bingo, a method more and more charitable games are using to squeeze more money out of each bingo game.

Historically, the number of cards a player could use simultaneously varied by that player's experience and speed. With an electronic device, that formula is thrown out the window, as a small electronic device keeps track of multiple cards. That means each player can now play more cards -- and that means more revenue for a bingo game.

And as technology advances, the electronic games become even more sophisticated. GameTech's model, for example, replaces primitive black-and-white screens with full color graphics.

Charity games receive the equipment for free, and pay GameTech a fee each time the system's used, Sammon said.

Sammon estimated about 6 to 8 percent of all bingo games around the country now use electronic devices. Eventually, "50 percent of the games will be 50 percent electronic," Sammon said.

But paper will never become obsolete, Fulton insists.

"Players still want the ability to participate by daubing the sheets," Fulton said. "Otherwise it becomes very boring."

In Las Vegas, virtually every casino parlor uses the devices. Brad McKenzie, bingo manager at North Las Vegas' Mahoney's Casino, estimates about two-thirds of Las Vegas players use the devices.

In the past, bingo games in Las Vegas have never been designed to generate a profit. They exist merely to draw in customers, who then gamble on slot machines or table games during breaks in the action.

The proliferation of electronic bingo is helping to change that dynamic, McKenzie said, though he believes slot play will always remain the primary focus of the games.

"It's going to eclipse the break-even mark at some point," McKenzie said.

But competition is pushing that point further back in Las Vegas, McKenzie said. In an effort to draw in customers, bingo jackpots are getting larger, and promotions are getting richer. In past years, a $20,000 jackpot was considered sizable; today, games for $100,000-plus jackpots are getting routine, McKenzie said.

"It's all part of the effort to capture the customer," McKenzie said. "It's getting ridiculous."

Related Links
Bingo World 2002 Conference and Trade Show