CUYAHOGA FALLS: The Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church bingo hall is busy — not as bustling as in years past, but still there are 138 eager folks hanging on every number called and daubing away at their cards.
And it’s a Wednesday night. The crowds are bigger on Saturdays.
Back in its heyday, bingo fans had to get here early to nab their favorite folding chair in the gym, which can hold 250 people. Sometimes, players were turned away.
“It used to be pretty consistent years ago when there weren’t so many distractions, you know,” said player Dottie Crouse, 74, of Lakemore, who has been coming here for about 20 years. “We used to have a pretty good crowd, but it hasn’t been consistent. It can be either up or down.”
For many bingo halls, it’s down.
Charitable bingo has taken it on the chin as revenue and net profits statewide fell 28 percent and 31 percent, respectively, between 2007 and 2011, according to the most recent financial data available from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
Experts and players attribute the slump to no-smoking rules, a depressed economy and increased competition from Internet and sweepstakes cafes.
The latest threat has come from Ohio’s fledgling casinos and racinos. This month marks the one-year anniversary of the first casino opening, the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland.
Some players and bingo organizers say the casino and racino industry has had only a minimal impact on their game so far. Bingo players are visiting the new gambling venues, but they aren’t abandoning their favorite bingo halls, they say. It’s less expensive to play bingo and safer than traveling to downtown Cleveland, some players said.
Internet cafes, parlors
The state attorney general will release financial data later this year that covers time since three of the casinos and one of the racinos have been open. That will provide a clearer picture of the impact.
“I’m not sure how much overall damage the casinos and the racinos have done,” said Dick Bajai, publisher of the Ohio Bingo Bugle newspaper based in Bellville. “I’m sure there’s some, but frankly the Internet cafes and the sweepstakes really started the decline.”
Many players who used to buy instant tickets and play at bingo halls, which raise money for nonprofits and charities, now take their cash to the unregulated cafes and parlors to play on what resemble electronic slot machines.
That leaves less money for bingo, Bajai said.
State leaders are looking into legislation that effectively would shut down the Internet and sweepstakes industry — an effort backed by money from casino operators.
“Oddly enough, that ultimately will help bingo if casinos get their way,” Bajai said.
Bingo remains big business in Ohio, just not as big as years ago.
Loss of revenue
Nearly 1,800 charitable bingo operations that the attorney general’s office tracked had revenue of $906 million and a net profit of nearly $115.9 million from November 2010 through October 2011, the latest numbers available.
In 2007, that revenue was $1.2 billion and net profit was $166.9 million for nearly 2,000 bingo halls.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary bingo operation saw its net profit fall about $100,000 over that time to $238,781, according to state records.
Scott Whitney, who manages the bingo games at Immaculate Heart of Mary, said the poor economy has had the biggest impact on attendance.
To try to retain and attract new players, the church has changed its games, gives away door prizes, buys players a free dinner once a quarter and created a Facebook page.
“That sparks interest and keeps people engaged,” Whitney said. “A lot of our players have decided to come back.”
More affordable option
Several players at Immaculate Heart of Mary said they go to casinos in addition to playing bingo.
Bingo is cheaper, said Barb Lawless, 55, of Cuyahoga Falls, who had a toy troll, several elephants and a bear arranged around her bingo cards to bring good luck.
It costs $12 for a single bingo card, which has nine panels. Most people play three or four cards and buy instant tickets and side games, too.
But there’s no fear of having to reach into your purse or wallet for more cash if the slot machine takes all your money or the cards aren’t going your way, players said.
Bingo games also last for hours.
Lawless attends every Wednesday.
“The people, the ambiance and gambling,” she said about why she visits.
Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or firstname.lastname@example.org.