Bingo is startling unique among gambling games in that, with the exception of lottery scratch cards, it’s the only game that attracts more women than men. While all other games are designed to set the pulses racing and flood the risk-taking male brain with its beloved dopamine, bingo is perhaps the only gambling activity where the social aspect around the game is more important than the dynamics of the game itself.
It is low-risk, “soft” gambling; a community activity that serves a social purpose, like the pub on a Friday night, or church on Sunday. It is also one of the few gambling games that is almost uniquely working class, particularly in the UK, one of its biggest markets. And, of course, as everyone knows, it’s played mainly by old ladies.
But do these very distinct demographics still ring true today? These days, online bingo has ramped up the pace of the game and offers more formats than you can shake your bingo wings at. There’s 90-ball bingo, 80-ball bingo, 75-ball pattern bingo, speed bingo, chat games, penny bingo, linked jackpot bingo, bingo-slot hybrids, and more. You can play bingo harder, faster, at higher volume, and with more variation than ever before.
Who Really Plays Bingo?
Online bingo has become one of the most popular forms of online gambling in certain markets. But has this been a good thing or a bad thing for land-based bingo, and how has it impacted the traditionally perceived demographic? In short, these days, who really plays bingo?
Some of the biggest land-based bingo markets in the world include the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and Brazil. It is estimated that some $70 billion is spent every year worldwide in land-based bingo halls around the world, the majority of this in the tribal gaming halls of North America.
Under US law, bingo is considered a Class II gambling game, which means tribal operators are not required to get a special dispensation from the state to offer it, provided the games take place on their sovereign lands. That means that a large part of bingo players in North America are those who live on or near to Indian reservations. Otherwise the demographic is familiar: it’s a game for “grandmothers,” a retirement activity.
Death and Resurrection of the UK Market
While the tribal industry in North America has kept the game alive and kicking there, the bingo halls of the UK have had a tougher time of it over the past few decades. In fact, over the last 30 years, the number of halls has plummeted by 75 percent.
The smoking ban in UK public places, enacted in 2007, was a hammer blow for the land-based bingo industry. In the three years immediately after the ban, the country lost around 130 bingo clubs, or roughly 20 percent the entire industry.
But this also coincided with the dramatic rise in popularity of online bingo. While in the US, online bingo is illegal outside of New Jersey, today, the UK is the biggest online bingo market in the world. In 2015 annual gross-gaming yield for the online bingo industry from UK customers alone was £128.64 million, according to figures released recently by the UK Gambling Commission. That accounted for some 3 percent of the entire online gambling market share.
Numerous mainstream media outlets have introduced their own bingo sites in recent years, through B2B deals with platform operators, giving online bingo a bigger marketing reach, perhaps, than any other gambling vertical other than sports betting. The UK Gambling Commission currently licenses 58 separate gambling companies to offer online bingo, and between them they operate over 300 sites serving the UK market.
But far from “cannibalizing” players from land-based bingo, online appears to have sparked a much-needed resurgence for the UK’s bingo clubs, and have, moreover, introduced the game to a younger demographic.
A 2014 gambling prevalence survey found that 3 percent of the UK population listed bingo as a weekly activity. Meanwhile, a UKGC gambling participation study of 2012 found that bingo had become more popular with people of all ages, with 8 percent of females aged 18 to 24 saying they played the game, versus 9 percent of the traditional 60 to 75-year-old demographic, and 8 percent of 75’s-plus.
Even men are catching the bug, although not yet dramatically. The same study found that 5 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds said they played the game regularly, a higher amount than the 60 to 75 demographic.
Surprises in the Spanish Market
According to a study by the University of Kent entitled “The Bingo Project,” the online demographic is markedly different from land-based: here, 60 percent of online players are female and the average age is around 40.
Online bingo has also introduced the game to countries that do not have a strong bingo culture, such as Spain, Portugal, Italy, Denmark and Sweden, and here the demographics are even broader.
In fact, in cultures with no preconceived notion of bingo being a game strictly for “ladies of a certain age,” male participation was found to be significantly higher. In Sweden, Italy, and Spain, men actually made up the larger chunk of the player-base. In Spain, male players accounted for an extraordinary 65 percent.
The resurgence of the land-based clubs has also been aided by the UK government’s decision in 2014 to ease their tax burden. Chancellor George Osborne halved the duty on profits from 20 percent to 10 percent, offering the industry a huge lifeline. Largely as a result of that move, the research group Mintel announced that spending in UK bingo halls would rise from £690 million in 2014, to £728 million by 2019, an increase of 5 percent.
The latest figures from the UKGC suggest that prediction may actually be a cautious one. While the UK still lost some venues last year, its turnover actually increased by 4 percent over 2014. The newfound optimism was illustrated earlier this year by the sale of the Gala Bingo to a private investment trust for £241 million.
Is Bingo Future-Proof?
Bingo in the UK is finally heading in the right direction, but for how long? When the game’s dominant demographic, eventually shuffles off this mortal coil, when their numbers are finally announced by the Great Bingo Caller in the Sky, will the next generation be willing to fill those empty seats? In short, is the bingo industry future-proof?
It may be that in 40 years’ time, the millennial generation, reared on Halo and Grand Theft Auto and Pokémon Go, are unwilling to suddenly develop an interest in blue rinses and the famously simplistic game of bingo, unless the game dramatically reinvents itself.
What shape that might take is anyone’s guess, but least the industry has 40 years to consider its options.