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The Struggle to Keep UK Bingo Halls Alive in the Digital Age

bingo halls versus online bingo
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In recent years, there has been a great deal of talk about the resurgence of bingo in the UK and the ways in which operators have been working to attract a new generation of players. However, there is no escaping the fact that factors, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the indoor smoking ban, the cost-of-living crisis, and the rise of online bingo sites have made life hard for bingo hall operators, and several have closed.

One venue currently facing closure is Mecca Bingo in the centre of Camden Town in London, near the famous market. Speaking recently one regular player said:

“It’s my life. I’m 83 years old. I’ve been going to bingo since 1976. It’s my bit of freedom. My friends are all here. Otherwise, what are we going to do? Sit indoors and rot?”

Camden’s Mecca Bingo opened as a bingo hall 56 years ago, but now a planning application has been filed to turn the venue into a site for Secret Cinema events, and there are many similar stories across the nation.

A Steady Stream of Hall Closures

According to the Bingo Association, there are currently 253 bingo halls in the UK. Prior to the pandemic, there were 335, and when the smoking ban was introduced in 2007, there were roughly 635.

Roughly 55 of the bingo halls closed due to the pandemic while approximately 20 have closed since 2022 due to increased energy prices. The chief executive of the Bingo Association, Miles Baron, said that one club had no choice but to close after its energy bills trebled at the start of 2023.

“We have big footprints; 25,000 square feet bingo clubs take a lot of heating, a lot of lighting. They’re not cheap places to run. So, if Covid didn’t finish you off, then energy prices would have done. But the ones that have come through this are performing well.”

Baron went on to explain that the smoking ban in 2007, coinciding with the rise of online play, created “a perfect storm” for the industry.

“Just before the smoking ban, around 50 per cent of bingo customers smoked. So, overnight, that had a massive implication. I can be pretty sure that, of the 50 per cent, around half of them said, ‘I’m not coming in anymore because I can’t smoke’. So we lost around 25 per cent of our volume overnight. The online revolution almost gathered pace at the same time as the smoking ban. What it meant was that, for the first time, if you smoked and you didn’t feel able to go out to a physical venue, you could sit at home and play online.”

The Rapid Rise of Online Bingo

Data from the UK Gambling Commission shows that in the 12 months leading to March 2009, the gross gambling yield (GGY) of online bingo (the amount operators keep after paying winnings but before costs) was £470,000 and by the 12 months to March 2023 it had grown to £173 million.

Land bingo venues, such as bingo halls, pubs, and clubs, saw their GGY drop from £703 million to £591 million over the same period.

It is not all bad news; there is a growing number of young people attending bingo halls, in particular the special events and bingo raves that have sprung up over the last few years. In 2022, Mintel published a report that found three times as many people aged 18 to 45 were visiting bingo halls than those over 45. However, this is not the same as visiting regularly.

Mintel’s category director, Paul Davies, explained that the data shows older players are more likely to visit regularly.

“One younger person probably comes maybe once every month. A regular bingo customer of the more mature side probably comes four times a month.”

The Destruction of Bingo Communities

Mecca Bingo in Camden attracts players from across the capital but according to Rank Group, which owns the Mecca Bingo brand, there is not enough footfall to guarantee that the venue will stay viable.

One customer, Frances Lushington has been visiting with her mother for roughly a decade since their local bingo hall closed in Burnt Oak, around nine miles away. She said that the closure would be “really sad”.

“It’s a little community. People have been coming here for years and there is no other local club. Everyone is really upset. No customer in there wants it to close. It’s tragic.”

Similarly, Dawn Duckworth, who visits weekly, said:

“I used to go to Essex Road, Hackney. All closed. I’m not happy. I love coming here. It’s the people, they are fantastic. I love bingo and they shouldn’t be closing.”

A third player, Ms Osborne, who is in her 80s and who takes two buses to travel to the venue from Islington, added:

“They want everybody to go online, but it’s not right. I can’t do it. I’ve got glaucoma in both my eyes and I don’t know how to use these phones. Why are they closing them all?”

In the 1960s, there were six million members of bingo clubs in the UK, but according to bingo historian Dr Carolyn Downs at Lancaster University, bingo venues began to decline in popularity with the launch of the national lottery in the 1990s.

However, it seems that the worst may be over. Baron at the Bingo Association says that the rate of club closures is now “vastly less” than in recent years, and thanks to new clubs opening this year, the number of active clubs will stay roughly the same.

He believes that having weathered the pandemic, energy prices, the lottery, scratch cards, and the increase in home entertainment, bingo is set to remain.

“But despite all that, we’re still here. Lots of people are still playing and the growth and diversification of the game, certainly in recent years mean that, at some point in the future, rising tide will float all boats.”

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Mike Bennet
Author: Mike Bennett
Dedicated to keeping the spirit of bingo alive. I think bingo sites translate tradition into a modern context and I aim to provide our readers with the latest from the world of online bingo, including industry news, launches, and promotions.

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