The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport became one of the first airports in the nation to launch electronic gambling in January, projecting that the iPad games in bars and restaurants would rake in $3 million in 2013 to help fund the Minnesota Vikings stadium.
Six months later, however, passengers have spent $33,586.
The disappointing returns are the latest indication of problems with the state’s original plan for funding the state’s $348 million share of the stadium.
On Monday, a Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) committee voted to let the gambling experiment continue. The commission had approved a six-month run in January.
So far, only two of the six airport bars and restaurants now offering electronic pulltabs are bringing in significant cash.
The e-game rollout was delayed because software and wireless connections had to be revamped for use in an airport that has hundreds of employees with access to them. That took several months.
In the weeks ahead, staff at the airport bars and restaurants will be trained on how to encourage customers to give the games a try, so that year-end numbers will be far stronger, said Jana Vaughn, executive director of the MSP Airport Foundation.
“It’s a daunting task,” said Vaughn. “This is hundreds of people [staff] getting one-on-one training. But we think this will ultimately be successful.”
New frontier in gambling
The e-games were supposed to take off early this year, with hopes of capturing the captive airport audience. It would be a new frontier in gambling. National gambling officials 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.
However, the electronic pulltabs that folks were playing in Minnesota bars and restaurants were not designed for a high-security, high-volume corporate setting, said Vaughn. New software was needed and new Wi-Fi connections, she said.
With the technical delays, the games didn’t really get into players’ hands until May, Vaughn said. Then it was a matter of letting passengers know about them. Signs outside the bars and restaurants offering them now announce “E Gambling Available Here,’’ she said.
The games are being tested in six locations: Surdyk’s Flights, Ike’s Food and Cocktails, O’Gara’s Bar and Grill, Rock Bottom, Fletcher’s Wharf and Itasca Grille. Two of the sites — Fletcher’s Wharf and Itasca Grille — are driving about 60 percent of sales, she said.
“If we can get the other four sites to their level, then we’ll be in business,” said Vaughn.
An untapped audience
Vaughn said she’s learned a key to e-game sales — namely that if a staff person promotes the games to customers, they are far more likely to play. That’s why the promotional training is slated to roll out soon.
Vaughn believes there’s an untapped audience for the games, and that the games will eventually catch on.
“There are people with time to kill and they like iPads,” she said.
Of the $33,586 spent so far on the games, 85 percent was returned to players as prizes, said Vaughn. After paying rent to the bar, rent for the equipment, and taxes to the state, the foundation earned about $1,900 for its projects at the airport, she said.
Despite the delays, the technology changes made to accommodate the e-games at the airport could ultimately be useful for other corporate settings, said Vaughn. The technology, for example, could be used by national restaurant chains, she said.
Jon Weaver, CEO of Express Games MN, the e-games distributor, said he is confident the technological changes have made the games airport-ready.
“There were some special circumstances because everything at the airport has higher security,” said Weaver.
The full MAC board is expected to approve the six-month extension at its next meeting.
Minnesota Sports Authority Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen said the disappointing e-gambling revenues overall will have no bearing on the stadium bond sale, which most likely will be in September.
She said the backup sources of funding — the cigarette tax hike and revenue from the closing of a corporate tax loophole — “basically have the whole thing covered.”