Ohio charities turned a profit of more than $100 million from bingo last year — more than any other state — but the revenue generated has declined annually since reaching its peak in 2005.
Feeling the effects of the downturn are some 1,700 nonprofits that raise money for causes such as private schools, youth baseball and children’s charities. Most bingo games remain profitable, but some operations have closed in recent years. Others scramble to pay the bills.
“We’re so far in arrears with our security and vendors. We’re trying to hack away at the bills,” said Patty O’Connell, who helps run Underground Bingo on Valley Street in Dayton. It benefits the Dayton Ritualarium Society, a Jewish charity.
Underground Bingo, which discontinued its Tuesday session a few months ago, made a scant $32,000 profit from $2.6 million in revenue in 2011, according to the most recent state figures that break down financials by operation. Typical expenses include game payouts, rent, security, license fees, utilities and advertising.
Ohio bingo games took in a total of $855 million in 2012 and turned a cumulative profit of $106 million, according to the Ohio Attorney General. Those numbers pale in comparison to 2005, when state bingo operations basked in revenues of $1.4 billion and cleared $196 million.
The slide in profits can be attributed to a series of gut punches that bingo has absorbed in recent years: a stagnant economy, an aging clientele, the state’s smoking ban, Ohio Lottery games, internet cafes and competition from other gambling outlets, including from Ohio and neighboring states.
“Anymore in the last year or two, when the ladies get here early they’ll be asking, ‘How did you do at the boat?’ ” said Don Keller, who manages Carroll High School’s twice-a-week bingo game.
Local bingo operators will have new competition when two racinos in the area open soon, including this week in Turtlecreek Twp. Miami Valley Gaming and its 1,600 video lottery terminals will open Thursday on Ohio 63 near the Interstate 75 exit, and Hollywood Gaming at Dayton Raceway is due to open next fall.
While those facilities could further slam bingo parlors, operators say they are encouraged by Ohio’s recent crackdown on internet cafes. A law that went into effect in October essentially closed more than 600 of the unregulated gambling businesses.
“We weathered the casinos,” O’Connell said. “It was really the internet cafes that knocked us for a loop. They were closed on a Monday and we played Wednesday, and we saw people we haven’t seen for ages.”
Largely thanks to instant bingo, the games have remained a viable option for charitable nonprofits.
Traditional bingo, with its set pots that max out at $6,000, has become a loss leader at many halls. If players don’t buy enough paper sheets to cover the advertised pot, the house loses.
Revenue from pull tabs, though, make a smooth-running operation profitable. For example, O’Connell said one of her most popular instant games comes in a box that includes 2,400 tickets (sold for $1 each). Prizes total $1,992 and the tickets cost $79, leaving $329 for the charity.
“You couldn’t make it without the tear-off tickets — and they love to buy their tickets,” said Ron Slusher, president of the Miami Valley Warhawks Baseball Club, which holds bingo games three nights a week at Dryden Road Bingo in Moraine.
Slusher, who manages the Warhawks baseball team and supports other youth programs, can point to a wall of photos that feature national championship teams and famous alumni such as Cincinnati Reds star Brandon Phillips.
“This tells people who our charity is and where our money goes,” said Slusher, whose annual license costs more than $10,000. “We’re proud of who we are.”
Haves and have-nots
The range of bingo haves and have-nots in the Dayton area is dramatic. The Miami Valley Wolverines Baseball Club — which runs a game out of Eastown Bingo in east Dayton — turned a profit of $1.7 million in 2011. Meanwhile, the Sightless Children’s Club in Vandalia cleared just $9,101.
The Hillel Academy of Dayton, which operates at Valley Street Bingo, lost $825,000 on traditional bingo in 2011, but earned a $955,000 profit on instant sales totaling $4.6 million. It made $129,620 for its charity.
The Warhawks Baseball Club had the same experience: a $294,000 loss on traditional bingo but nearly $600,000 in profit on instant bingo. The bottom line: a net profit of $302,979.
Not all bingo operators are in the game solely for charity — the state has taken action against nearly 300 operations since 2006.
Ohio began regulating bingo in 1976 and licenses were cheap. They still are for traditional bingo — $200 — but the state takes a cut of instant sales, which can push license fees into the thousands. The more instant bingo tickets a charity sells, the more it pays.
License fees pay for the salaries of more than 60 employees in the Attorney General’s Charitable Gaming Law Section. The state also contracts with the Ohio Lottery Commission for additional site inspectors and office workers.
The decline in bingo proceeds has also meant a drop in revenue to the state. Ohio took in $4 million in fees in 2006; last year its take was $2.5 million.
About 200 Ohio games have closed in the past 10 years.
‘There’s not much to do’
Customers who frequent bingo halls see their pastime as an affordable diversion and a way to stay in touch with friends. Some just like to gamble.
Marcella Fisher, 82, says she’s played bingo at Carroll High School for more than 40 years. She was ready to go last Tuesday with a seven-layer salad and a Coke (no caffeine) placed neatly on the cafeteria table in front of her. Players are allowed to bring food and drink into parlors, but alcohol is not allowed.
“At my age there’s not much to do,” Fisher said. “I don’t drink or smoke. I used to come with my sister-in-law but she died. I don’t have anyone to run around with.”
A good night at Carroll and Dryden Road Bingo means between 150 and 200 players, and the faces generally are the same.
“Rich people don’t come to play bingo,” Slusher said. “These people are down to earth and will speak their mind. They love the atmosphere and see their friends. They want to hit that $1,000 winner and scream ‘bingo!’ and go buy their tickets.”
Only Minnesota brought in more bingo revenue than Ohio in 2011, but those in the industry worry about the game’s future. At the same time, they admire how bingo has survived. John Smith, president of Lancaster Bingo Company, the nation’s largest supplier of pull tabs, has had a front-row seat for the fight for gambling dollars.
“If you would’ve asked me 10 years ago what bingo would’ve looked like in 10 years, I would’ve said it would be all electronic,” Smith said. “What I’ve learned is there’s a certain draw bingo has, a camaraderie between the players.
“Fifty bucks goes a lot further at a bingo hall than in slot machines. It’ll still exist in 10 years, but the game will have to evolve. And there is an aspect of, ‘Hey, if I lose my money it’ll go back into the community.’ ”
Top 10 bingo states
Ohio bingo operators trailed only Minnesota in gross revenue (money before expenses) in fiscal year 2011. Buckeye State bingo operations made more than $100 million profit that year.
North Dakota: $264,020,806
Source: National Association of Fundraising Ticket Manufacturers
Types of bingo licenses
Type I: traditional bingo
Type II: instant tickets sold at traditional bingo sessions
Type III: instant tickets sold at places other that bingo halls, such as VFW and American Legion halls.
The initial license for instant bingo is $500. After the first year the fee is based on sales. Fees range from $500, if gross revenue is $50,000 or less, to $5,000 plus 1 percent of the gross profit, if the total is more than $1 million.
Live chat with Miami Valley Gaming GM
Join us for a live web chat with Jim Simms, president and GM of the Miami Valley Gaming and Racing, at 1 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13. at DaytonDailyNews.com