Minnesota bets on e-bingo to fund Vikings stadium

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.

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Rona Nesser, of Blaine played electronic bingo at the Blainebrook Entertainment Center in Blaine on Thursday. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ cgonzalez@startribune.com March 27, 2013, Blaine, Minn., The Blainebrook Entertainment Center is one of the two or three test sites for the new electronic linked bingo games. Electronic linked bingo, the second leg of Minnesota's plan to fund the Minnesota Vikings stadium, is expected to begin rolling out at bars and restaurants this week.

 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.”

Playing e-bingo

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  • “I think this could really take off,” Rona Nesser said of the electronic bingo game she tried at Blainbrook Bowl in Blaine.

  • Rona Nesser helped Wendy Hedges play on an electronic bingo tablet at the Blainebrook Entertainment Center in Blaine on Thursday. Nesser had learned to use the device earlier and was assisting her friend. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ cgonzalez@startribune.com March 27, 2013, Blaine, Minn., The Blainebrook Entertainment Center is one of the two or three test sites for the new electronic linked bingo games. Electronic linked bingo, the second leg of Minnesota's plan to fund the Minnesota Vikings stadium, is expected to begin rolling out at bars and restaurants this week.

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