Fans of the e-gambling expected to finance the Vikings stadium got some good news Monday, when electronic games were approved for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and two new manufacturers were given the green light to sell in Minnesota.
The airport will become one of the nation's first to offer electronic gambling to passengers, gambling officials said.
The Metropolitan Airport Commission approved installing the games played on iPads at six restaurants, starting in January. If successful, dozens more could come on board.
Meanwhile E-tab Manufacturing of St. Paul will begin rolling out electronic games at several locations Thursday, following approval by the Gambling Control Board. Its hand-held device plays both pulltabs and bingo, although the bingo games are not expected to be approved until next year.
A second manufacturer, Electronic Games Solutions of Missouri, also was approved to sell electronic linked bingo. No rollout date was given.
"It was a good day,'' said Allen Lund, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, the trade organization for the roughly 2,500 nonprofits offering charitable gambling. "We now have some [manufacturer] options. We have an electronic linked bingo platform. And we're meeting with the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association later this week to plan to roll out some joint marketing in the future.''
The stepped-up activity comes in response to reports that tax revenue from electronic gambling has not kept pace with state projections. The electronic games are expected to fund the state's share of the Vikings stadium, or roughly $350 million.
Although Minnesotans have plunked down nearly $3 million to play the electronic games since they were launched in September, roughly $120,000 was paid in taxes. And none of that tax money went to the Vikings stadium because taxes paid on all charitable gambling must first reach a certain threshold -- $34 million -- before the Vikings funding kicks in.
A major problem with the rollout was that only one vendor had been approved, and many charities wanted to do some comparative shopping. Plus, the paper pulltab gamblers weren't exactly clamoring for them, gambling managers said.
And no one was running the linked bingo games, which could offer prizes of up to $100,000, said Glen "Spanky" Kuhlman, vice president of 3 Diamond Gaming Supplies, a Minnesota distributor for E-tab Manufacturing.
Kuhlman thinks that the arrival of electronic bingo games in the coming months could crank up gambling revenues.
"Any time you have jackpots of that volume, it will draw people to play," he said.
As new manufacturers and vendors line up to serve the state, the prospect of a boost in sales from the Twin Cities airport was on the horizon.
"There's 32 million people who go through that airport every year," said Jon Weaver, CEO of Express Games MN, which was the sole distributor of electronic pulltabs until Monday. "It has the potential to be a very high volume location."
The airport will start with six locations and could expand to as many as 30, said Kathy Williams, gambling manager for Airport Foundation MSP, a nonprofit that provides passenger amenities to the airport.
The airport now has one paper pulltab booth that pulls in about $370,000 a year, she said. That's a relatively low-volume operation for pulltabs. It's anyone's guess what will happen when the iPads show up in bars and restaurants.
"The airport is a different animal,'' said Williams. "We've got a captive audience, but they're not there that long. And they won't be back tomorrow night."
That said, Williams knew of no other airport outside Las Vegas and Reno that offered electronic gambling options. The Airports Council International of North America, based in Washington D.C., was also unaware of airports offering the new pulltab devices.
Attracting customers, and keeping them, is high on the minds of Lund and Frank Ball, executive director of the Minnesota Licensed Beverage Association. The two leaders will meet this week to brainstorm ideas to market and advertise the electronic games.
While they don't have an advertising budget like the Minnesota Lottery, they're looking at low-cost ways to spread the word that electronic gambling is fun -- and good for the Vikings stadium.
When state finance leaders and Gov. Mark Dayton called attention to the revenue shortfalls from electronic gambling, "it kind of put a chink in our armor," Ball said.
The goal now is to figure out ways to call attention to some of the big wins happening in bars and restaurants, perhaps host some special events, and "educate the public" about new games available, he said.
"We're going to try to come up with ideas to market this with a favorable tone," Ball said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511