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.’’

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