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Monday, 14 October, 2002, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
Can bingo bounce back?
Mecca Bingo, Wood Green
You can almost smell the adrenalin

There may only be 10 at stake, but when the main session starts at the Mecca, Wood Green, you can hear a pin drop.

It's not just little old ladies in carpet slippers playing for peanuts

Nigel Sibley, Mecca Bingo
By 2pm on a Friday - scarcely peak time - a couple of hundred bingo addicts sit hunched over their cards, and the tension is palpable.

"Bingo's not just a game - it's a serious business," whispers Irene Ford, a weekday regular at the north London club.

A serious business indeed: the Wood Green Mecca, one of the south's busiest halls, turns over a quarter of a million pounds a week, and parent company Rank Group earned 126m from bingo in the year to July.

Overall, Britons staked more than 1bn at the bingo tables last year, and visited clubs some 95 million times - seven times as many as attend Premiership football games.

Back from the brink

Not bad for a pastime written off for dead a decade ago.

Bingo facts and figures
More than 3 million regular players in UK
Total annual stake money about 1.1bn
One in five Scots plays regularly, compared with only one in 20 in south of England
70% of players are female
The average age of players is 47
Customs & Excise collect 115m in bingo duty annually
The average player spends 15-20 a night, not counting winnings
Tests show bingo helps mental speed, ability to scan for information, and memory

Bingo, a game associated with the cheap and cheerful mass entertainment of the post-war austerity period, peaked in 1974, with almost 2,000 clubs nationwide.

Since then, struggling with a shabby image and unable to compete with the TV, it went into a tailspin, falling to fewer than 700 clubs by the end of the 1990s.

But somehow, the slide has bottomed out.

Attendance figures have held broadly steady during the late 1990s, and revenues and profits have actually started to increase.

At Mecca, which together with rival Gala controls almost half the UK bingo market, spend per visitor has jumped by 7% this year already.

Not just peanuts

This is mainly the result of some vigorous firefighting by the operators themselves.

Marketing has been stepped up a gear: earlier this year, Mecca launched new TV commercials pitching bingo firmly into the booming girls'-night-out market.

Bingo advertising
Cheap and - ideally - cheerful
"It's not that we are aiming for a younger profile," says Nigel Sibley, commercial director of Mecca Bingo.

"But bingo's a game that runs in families, and we are trying to catch them early.

"We wanted to show it's not just little old ladies in carpet slippers playing for peanuts."

Play has also been streamlined, stripping out puzzling jargon - "legs eleven", "two fat ladies" and so on - and introducing spin-off games between the main sessions.

Gala and Mecca have invested heavily in premises, progressively moving out of shabby converted cinemas into purpose-built leisure complexes such as Wood Green.

Bill and Jade

Amid all the media twitter over bingo's rebirth, it has even been credited with a certain ironic chic.

What is bingo?
In return for a stake, a player receives a grid of random numbers
Grid numbers are marked off when announced by a caller
Prizes are awarded for completing a grid line, multiple lines or the full grid faster than other players
Big clubs pay out some 20,000 or more in a night, depending on attendance
Clubs often link games together electronically
The "National Game" links 550 clubs every night, and has prizes of up to 500,000
The industry claims bingo has the best odds of any popular form of gambling
Bill Clinton, on his recent visit to the Labour conference in Blackpool, had to be dragged by his minders from a bingo hall, and the British Bingo Association fingers "Denise Van Outen, Elle MacPherson, Atomic Kitten, Damon Hill, Bianca and Jade Jagger" as regular players.

But forget the glitz, fans say - what has really rescued the game is its inner core of fuzzy warmth.

"Bingo is a social event," Mr Sibley says.

"For our regular customers, it is an irreplaceable part of their lives.

"Bingo clubs are set up to provide a patrolled, safe environment, with a level of care you don't find in other forms of leisure."

Bingo's big day

So far, so relatively unspectacular.

But bingo may be on the verge of a more tangible boost.

Bingo TV ads
Target demographic
In April, Chancellor Gordon Brown proposed eliminating bingo duty - currently roughly 10p in the pound, contributing about 115m annually to the Treasury - and replacing it with a direct tax on operators' incomes.

Operators have been slow to cheer, but punters and investors assume duty abolition will result in bigger prize-money and a surge in attendance.

According to investment bank Lehman Brothers, abolition could boost bingo-sector profits by an immediate 30%.

Lighter hands

More satisfying still could be the outcome of a sea-change in state regulation of gambling, set under way by Sir Alan Budd's independent report two years ago.

Bingo players
Just looking for a good time
Bingo, although acknowledged as the softest form of gambling, is still regulated with a somewhat heavy hand. Players have to sign up for club membership, a process involving a 24-hour cooling-off period, and stakes and prizes are tightly restricted.

Effectively, the Budd report proposed eliminating almost all restriction on the softer end of the market, only stipulating that operators should not ramp up their offering towards "harder" forms of gambling.

Rank, which already operates a chain of casinos, plans to make hay when the Budd report crystallises into law - possibly within three years.

Crucially, the rules will allow combinations of different forms of gambling - recreational games such as bingo, casino games and betting - under one roof, a concept known in the trade as "gaming sheds".

Quality, not quantity

Gaming sheds may well draw more punters through Mecca's doors.

But that may do little to broaden the appeal of bingo itself.

The game's promoters seem to have little interest in selling it much beyond its core working-class, female constituency, and they treat stories about smart celebrity players as little more than amusing diversions.

They may, however, have more luck persuading existing players to spend more on each visit, especially on the refreshments and ancillary games where their profit really lies.

Demographics is on their side: almost one-third of bingo players are single women - a social category that is becoming ever more numerous, richer and more hungry for fun.

Amid the uncertainties of the gaming industry, bingo might the closest thing there is to a dead cert.

See also:

17 Apr 02 | Politics
01 Mar 02 | Business
10 Jan 02 | England
04 Oct 01 | England
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