Vikings stadium funding plan relies on bars' culture, marketing and 'whales'

The plan for funding the Vikings stadium relies on finding a formula to help electronic gambling succeed.

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Randy Langenenks played an electronic pulltab game at Porky’s, a small St. Paul bar that consistently ranks in the Top 10 in the sale of e-pulltabs in Minnesota.

Photo: KYNDELL HARKNESS • kyndell.harkness@startribune.com,

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Head to Porky’s and Wild Onion to play electronic pulltab games and you’ll see how the state’s plan to help fund the Minnesota Vikings stadium can work or fail.

At Wild Onion, located on St. Paul’s trendy Grand Avenue, the games are hidden below the bar. No posters or tabletop advertisements tout them. Hardly a soul plays. April gross sales: $47.

Outside Porky’s, a tiny blue-collar bar on the East Side of St. Paul, a huge banner yells “Electronic Pulltabs Available Here.” Inside, the bar owners promote the games. Customers know the ropes and play. April sales: $57,000.

When a legislative committee heard there were pulltab success stories, lawmakers asked, “What’s their secret?’ ” Figuring out what works, and what doesn’t, is now a priority for charities and the state.

Electronic games run by charities are slated to drive the state’s $348 million share of the Vikings stadium. But the initial $35 million revenue projection for this year was slashed to $1.7 million in part because of paltry sales.

Although Gov. Mark Dayton last week announced a “secure” backup funding source is in the works, e-gaming is still a top priority, his staff said.

Minnesota gambling leaders say there is no magic formula. But key ingredients that help spike sales — and taxes for the stadium — are advertising, location, “gambling culture,’’ owner buy-in and the presence of “whales” — big gamblers.

“You need a nucleus of five or more people who play all the time, and who can afford to play,” said Mark Healey, gambling manager at Community Charities of Minnesota, which sells e-games at 13 sites.

Customers need to see other people playing, and winning, he said.

“Then there’s talk in the town, ‘I won $500 playing those electronic games,’ ” he said. “That’s what it takes.”

Minnesotans spent $2.1 million on e-games in April, $300,000 less than in March, according to the Minnesota Gambling Control Board. Eighty-five percent of the sales go back to the players as prizes. Not a penny goes to the stadium until $34 million in taxes have been paid by charities — from all forms of gambling.

Average gross sales at the roughly 200 sites with the games was $339 per day in April; average net was $54.

Walk into the Wild Onion on a Saturday night and see the problem that Minnesota will need to fix.

A couple eating dinner asked their waitress for a game. The waitress, courteous but busy, said she’d return shortly. After five minutes, the couple flagged her down again. She said she had to call a manager.

The manager arrived shortly, requested a driver’s license and cash to play, and showed the couple a half-dozen games. When he returned to pick up the iPad, he remarked: “I’ve never seen anyone make more than $1.80 on this.”

A similarly lackluster scene played out at Champps in St. Paul, which sold $3,486 in e-games last month. As the sports bar/restaurant filled with diners, there was no clue that four e-games were tucked behind the shiny wooden bar. When asked about the games, the manager said the games’ Internet connection went down earlier. Besides, most customers would be watching a boxing match that night.

Javier Cordon and Destiny Smith were among the folks nursing a drink near the bar.

“I think people would play if they knew they were here,” said Smith. “People want something to keep their hands busy.’’

The scene at Fabulous Fern’s in St. Paul, a bar/restaurant that attracts a business crowd, looked much the same. But Fabulous Fern’s ranks No. 8 in Minnesota e-pulltab sales, generating $41,000 last month. Customers streaming in checked out the popcorn machine near the bar, but not an eye shifted toward the games underneath it.

“If we’re a top stop in the charity world, the whole effort is a disaster,” said Fern’s owner Charles Senkler.

Senkler believes about a dozen regular players drive his sales, an analysis echoed by many gambling managers.

More would play, he predicted, if they could see how many prizes were left in the game, and how much they were worth — like with paper pull­tabs.

Playing in the dark

This is a universal complaint among players and bar owners.

“You’re playing blind,” said Nick Closmore, general manager at Wild Onion, who thinks that is the main reason his customers don’t play.

“We did some table tents for a while and promoted it on Facebook,” Closmore said. “But we concluded that the way games were set up, there was no sense, ‘I have a way to beat the house.’ ”

Most of the bars on the Top 10 list of e-game sales do some advertising, say owners. Plus, their bartenders and/or pulltab sellers promote it.

“I think a lot of bars aren’t taking responsibility,” said Amanda Jackson, assistant gambling manager for the Spring Lake Lions Club, which sold $35,000 in e-games last month at Monte’s Sports Bar. “Our pulltab sellers encourage people to give them a try. We have signs up. We put them on the counter. If someone comes to the [pulltab] booth, we encourage them to give them a try.”

Other Top 10 bars, such as Mills Lounge in Dilworth, say its $41,000 in sales last month reflect its location on busy Hwy. 10 and near I-94.

Mully’s on Madison, a country-western bar in Mankato, also benefits from its location and from being the first in the area, said owner Patrick Mulligan. His bar broke all state records in March, selling $110,000 in e-pulltabs.

Napkin holders say, “Mully’s Now has Electronic Pull­tabs See Bartender for Details.” And the high-trafficked wall by the bathroom has a poster announcing the games.

“We had [advertisements] on the marquee for a while,” said Mulligan.

Angie Oachs, a regular at the bar, believes sales are hot because Mully’s long has been “a gambling bar.’’

“I was a little confused at first, because of the bonuses and things,” said Oachs. “But I haven’t gone to the casino since I started playing these.”

But the monstrous sales coming out of otherwise-ordinary bars have some folks suspicious about high-stakes gamblers, or “whales,’’ skewing results. Mully’s $110,000 sales bonanza in March plunged to $52,600 in April. Likewise, Knuckleheads Bar & Grill in Hill City saw sales plunge from $50,400 in March to $1,349 in April, according to state figures.

Porky’s, meanwhile, has consistently been in the Top 10. The windowless bar, which has about a dozen stools and a few booths, also has long been a gambling bar.

A recent visit showed that players of all types were comfortable with the games. Some played together, making it more sociable. Because the place is so small, folks could watch and comment on each other’s games.

Don Andert and Mark Growe were sharing a game. They each put in $10 and were winning enough small prizes that the money still hadn’t run out after 20 minutes. They teased each other as they played.

“It’s fun,” said Growe. “You got people to play with. You got three to four people going in on a jackpot.’ ”

After about a half-hour, the players had won enough times that they had $51 left in their game. They called it a day.

“That’s how you do it!” said Growe.

In the months ahead, Vikings fans and state officials hope that’s how more Minnesotans will do it, too.

 

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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