GRAND ISLAND, NEB. - Karla Smith plays serious bingo. She’s one of the regulars at the game hosted by VFW Post 1347 in Grand Island, Neb.
“I like it here. The pay is good,” she said, referring to the prize money she hopes to win. “I go other places that don’t pay as good, but that don’t bother me. Just have some entertainment.”
She’s sitting in front of a clipboard holding two giant sheets of paper printed with twelve bingo cards. Each time the bingo caller announces a new number, her hand is a blur as she moves a neon ink dauber to blot out the matching digits on her cards.
Ask her how often she wins and you’ll get a hearty laugh. “It’s probably about 50-50. They owe me a lot.” Another big laugh. “But I have fun anyway.”
Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News
A winner gets her prize money on Bingo Night at the Grand Island VFW hall.
Bingo may be gambling, but it’s also an evening of socializing for most players, and it’s an important source of revenue for dozens of charities across Nebraska.
Unfortunately, the VFW is seeing fewer and fewer players like Smith. The number of players, the amount they wager, and the revenue from the games are all in a free fall. Some wonder if the game can survive much longer.
In 2011, one of Nebraska’s largest bingo games shut down. Holy Name parish in Omaha started running bingo games in the 1950’s. After years of declining revenue, the parish no longer earned enough money to justify running the operation. During the heyday of the game, the church collected up to $250,000 per year in support of the church and its elementary school.
“It’s been declining in the last 10 years,” said Kenny Brandt, one of the organizers and game callers at the VFW Post. He remembers when two huge community rooms at the Post would be packed with more than 300 players on big jackpot nights. The night in January Smith was there, Brandt was working “an average crowd,” he said.
Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News
A volunteer at the VFW Hall double checks a winning Bingo card during the Thursday night game.
“Thursday nights, if you get 100, you’re doing good, and Sunday’s 130, 140.”
Don Kemerling, the other caller that night, chimed in with a possible reason for the decrease.
“More types of gambling have opened up in Nebraska. I guess they don’t call it gambling - ‘gaming,’” he said with a smirk.
Gaming became big business in the 1990s, cutting deeply into revenues of veterans' groups, service organizations and churches all over the state.
In Nebraska the first lottery tickets were sold in 1993. A year later, casinos opened up across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa. They immediately began luring away bingo players from eastern Nebraska. In 2002, any town in the state was given the choice of opening a keno operation to finance local government. Bars statewide became gambling operations over night.
Steve Schatz watched each step of this progression as the policy manager at the Nebraska Department of Revenue in the Charitable Gaming Division. Every new form of gambling came with assurances from gambling proponents it was a big market with room enough for everyone.
“You know, there wasn’t room for everybody,” said Schatz, who recently retired from the department. “Not only has charitable gaming revenue declined, but you see it in thoroughbred horse racing.”
The number of players and the amount they wager continues to shrink. Statewide bingo wagering dropped from $25 million in 1993 to just $9.4 million in the fiscal year from 2010-2011, according to the annual report on charitable gaming. The quarterly report of charitable gaming activity in the state released in November of 2012 shows a continued downward trend in revenues.
Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News
Figures from Nebraska Department of Revenue, Charitable Gaming Division
Those numbers prompted Schatz to offer a bleak, one-word assessment of the current state of bingo.
“Irrelevant,” Schatz said. “It’s lost its relevance for the non-profit organizations. It’s lost its relevance for the state as a source of revenue. For the commercial people who run games, it’s no longer profitable for them, or at least not what it once was.”
In 2011, according to the Department of Revenue, seven bingo operations decided to shut down, including the game run by the Federation of Labor in Grand Island.
“There used to be bingo every night here in town,” recalled Chuck Donner of the Knights of Columbus Chapter in Grand Island. Their club runs a game periodically on Sunday evenings. The competition is disappearing.
“Here in town it’s the Elks Club, the Veteran’s Club and ours are the only ones having bingo anymore,” Donner said. “It used to be seven nights a week, now it’s basically the three.”
Only 93 bingo licenses remain in the state. There were three times that many in 1993. And less competition has not equaled more business for the survivors.
The total profits collected in 2011 from every bingo operation in the state combined equaled less than $500,000.
“Our income has dropped,” Donner said. That translates to a smaller contribution to the church each year and its youth activities.
At the VFW post, they cut back donations to the Veterans Administration Hospital and support for other local charities. Bingo also supports operations at the club. They have a large building and a popular 17-acre public park they maintain. It’s a difficult situation.
“It’s not the only thing keeping us afloat, but it has an awful lot to do with keeping us afloat,” caller Kemerling said.
Beyond attracting new players, there are other things that could boost the games, according to Schatz, the former Charitable Gaming Division policy manager .
Some states allow simulcast bingo from a remote site, similar to the system used at race tracks with video feeds of races in other states. That could cut the cost of running the games while potentially increasing the size of jackpots to entice players back .
Schatz pointed out that would take a coordinated effort to push for changes in the state gaming laws, “and there really isn’t anybody from the non-profit organizations that is very organized who can lobby and represent those people’s interests, which is kind of unfortunate.”
Another casualty of the abundance of gambling options is the paper pull-tab tickets game known as pickle cards, revenue from which also supported non-profits. At their peak, Nebraskans wagered $177 million in 1993 on pickle cards. Last year, it was only $28.7 million. In just one year the revenue from sales of the tickets dropped by almost $500,000.
The most obvious way to save bingo and rescue charitable gaming may also be the most difficult challenge for the non-profits: attract new players.
Players at the VFW game were mostly grey-haired. Some arrived with walkers and oxygen tanks. There are few younger players replacing the old-timers once they leave the game.
Sticking out among the senior citizens at the VFW hall was 28-year-old Katie, with manicured eyebrows and bright green fingernails. Snacks to her left and fresh bingo sheets to her right, she sat with a serious expression, listening for each new number called.
“A friend of mine brought me and then I just started coming back, and bringing friends, sometimes,” she said before play began. “There’s not too much for (people in their) 20s to do, other than your bars and the drinking scene.”
Her presence is a relief for the organizers and the long-time players.
“We do get a few new ones, which we’re glad for," said Brandt with the Grand Island VFW post, "because it’s what we need, is the young ones along with our retirees."
Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of our "Best of 2012" series of reports, airing Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2012 on NET Radio, looking back at some of the most memorable Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. This story originally aired February 9.