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Rona Nesser is a trailblazer for Minnesota’s newest attempt to fund the Vikings stadium — electronic linked bingo.
Starting this week, Minnesota will be the first state to launch statewide electronic bingo systems allowing players at dozens of locations to compete for some serious jackpots.
Nesser was part of a recent test run of the game at the Blainbrook Bowl, where she propped the bingo player on her table, pressed the video screen to call up a game and played against a friend at another table.
“I think this could really take off,” predicted Nesser, fiddling with the video game’s features. “You just need more sites and more people playing.”
That’s supposed to happen in the weeks ahead, as a St. Paul-based company called E-tab Manufacturing clicks the “on” switch for gaming devices in 90 bars and restaurants.
If all goes as planned, Nesser should be able to connect with players across Minnesota, vying for $1,000-plus jackpots and potentially attracting a new wave of gamblers.
That’s what charitable gaming officials, lawmakers and the Vikings are counting on. Proceeds from new electronic gaming devices are supposed to drive Minnesota’s $348 million share of the Vikings stadium, but the first games — electronic pulltabs — have so far been a bust. Slow sales forced the state to slash its forecast for what those games would raise by the end of this year from $35 million to $1.7 million.
Minnesotans already drop $62 million a year on paper bingo, but that’s only about 6 percent of state charitable gambling revenues. Paper pulltabs make up most of the rest.
But many charities overseeing the gambling are more optimistic about e-bingo than they were about e-pulltabs.
“I think when people see the size of the e-bingo jackpots, they’ll grab a machine,” said Linda Brausen, gambling manager for the Blaine Festival, which oversees charitable gaming at Blainbrook Bowl.
Minnesota first to try this
As with e-pulltabs, Minnesota is launching a gambling device whose technology and popularity have never been tried in other states, said Mary Magnuson, the St. Paul-based legal counsel for the National Association of Fundraising Ticket Manufacturers.
A linked bingo game available in Minnesota from about 2006 to 2011 allowed folks to play against players at multiple locations, she said. But it was a paper game, and the balls were drawn and transmitted to sites via the Internet.
Al Lund, executive director of Allied Charities of Minnesota, said many charities here are interested in linked bingo’s latest incarnation. They just want to see “the bugs worked out” before signing contracts.
“We believe this is going to be the racehorse,” said Lund.
Unlike that rollout of electronic pulltabs, which started with devices in five locations, the e-bingo game devices going live this week already are in nearly 100 bars and restaurants. The devices play both e-pulltabs and e-bingo.
Glen “Spanky” Kuhlman, vice president at 3 Diamond Gaming Supplies of Shoreview, is putting hundreds of miles on his car, training staff at bars and restaurants, handing out how-to-play cards, and setting up table tents that announce “The Piggies Are Coming” — referring to the bingo game “Piggies From Heaven.”
“Next week we’ll be installing in Cross Lake, Alexandria and Garfield,” said Kuhlman. “Then there’s two more in Minneapolis. We hope to have them all turned on by the end of the week.”
The e-bingo games are about the size of a hardcover book, with handles on the sides. Players load money into the devices at the gambling booth, then head to their tables. The games try to mimic some of the tried-and-true attractions to bingo, such as offering players options for the color and shape of their online “blotters.’’
Nesser, sitting with her husband, Tymm Nesser, sipped a beer while watching the screen. She had chosen to play six games, so her screen was divided into six grids. Bingo numbers were silently called on the screen, and the bingo boards filled. Because there were only two people playing — as opposed to dozens or hundreds expected down the road — the “prize” was a whopping 80 cents.
Ultimately her friend raised her arms in the air in mock triumph. “I don’t know if I should quit my day job or not,” joked winner Wendy Hedges, also of Blaine.
“Build that stadium!” yelled someone at a nearby table.
Hedges, who plays paper bingo every Monday night, envisions paper-bingo fans playing both games simultaneously.
“This [device] does everything for you: You don’t have to pay attention,” she said.
During this start-up period, at least, e-bingo may face some challenges.
• Technology. The games rely on brand-new technology and gaming devices. E-tabs, for example, ran into network problems when it tested its games several weeks ago. It sent the gaming devices back to the testing lab, where the glitch was fixed.
• Critical mass. To attract new players with the allure of a megajackpot, it needs a lot of players. For example, if 100 machines are being played at $1 each, a $40 prize would be split by the winners. If 1,000 machines were in play, the regular prize would hit $400. In each case, a certain percentage of the wins would be sent to progressive jackpots.
• Competition. Although there are about 2,700 gambling locations in Minnesota, including about 200 with electronic pulltabs to date, players can play only with folks using the same bingo device, made by the same manufacturer.
• How-to help for players. The games aren’t tough, but “more education would be helpful,” said Nesser.
None of that dampens the enthusiasm of Michelle Lange, gambling manager for Coon Rapids Youth Hockey. She brought e-pulltabs to CR’s Sports Bar in Coon Rapids the first day they went live in September. She did the same with e-bingo last week.
“I had my bingo callers announce it,” said Lange. “I had purchased Piggies From Heaven T-shirts for my workers. I think people will love this.”
Brausen simply hopes e-bingo will generate new funds for her charity. She added: “And if the Vikings stadium gets built with it, that’s a bonus.”