Eyes down for a new future for the bingo industry. The online world is presenting challenges but also new opportunities, with the region reaping the benefits, as Tom Keighley reports.
There's been a knock at the door for Bingo in the last eight years.
While the industry has been dealt a series of blows from the National Lottery, through the smoking ban and on to recession, it’s the game’s evolution in the face of adversity that has created interesting opportunities for the North East.
Bingo still employs some 12,500 people in the UK, but around 6,500 jobs have disappeared in the last decade alone.
A move to online bingo gaming over the last decade has seen the demise of many bricks and mortar bingo houses, but created a new market for the North East’s technology sector to capitalise on.
Exhaustive research conducted by retail consultant Graham Soult, on behalf of online bingo review site, Two Little Fleas, looks into the history and future of the sector, painting a mixed picture – but one with an alluring online future. Traditional retail bingo has suffered a relative decline in the number of gamers it attracts and its physical presence over the last decade, stemmed only partly by the government’s recent halving of taxes on bingo halls from 20% to 10%.
At the same time the major industry operators such as Gala and Mecca have invested in online gaming to help supplement declining retail revenues.
Mr Soult’s analysis of the online market shows such traditional operators are having to compete with a number of newer brands such as Foxy Bingo, and even sites run by industry outsiders like The Sun, Sky and supermarket Iceland.
Dan Smyth, managing director of North East-based bingo software developers Bede Gaming, and an investor in online bingo businesses, said the proliferation of high speed broadband had brought a whole market of players to the game.
Bede hosts more than 20 casino and bingo websites in countries across two continents, and employs 110 people.
Mr Smyth said: “It was around 2005 that bingo really started to take off. Suddenly you had a whole new group of people who hadn’t previously been on the internet.
“The average age of online players is younger – an age group that hasn’t traditionally played bingo.
“One of the online games’ key selling points is the skill factor. To play poker you need to know what you’re doing, and you’re potentially playing against other very accomplished gamers. With bingo everyone can join in, and it’s a very social game.”
Mr Smyth’s views suggest the online bingo audience is diverse – beyond the halls of uniform blue rinses. In fact, 2013 research from Mintel shows the number of UK online bingo players under the age of 45 has grown by two thirds in the last decade.
It’s why another North East firm – Sunderland’s Tombola – has grown into a successful online operator from its historic roots.
A quick and rather unscientific look at YouGov’s profiler application shows you the average Foxy Bingo customers is a middle-aged female from the Midlands who might work in retail or accounting. Top of her list of activities is video gaming. The bingo Bloggs also spends at least 50 hours a week online.
It is an important piece of the jigsaw for bingo brands to orientate themselves to the future market.
As ownership of mobile and tablet devices increases, Mr Soult’s report points to social interaction, and the integration of established social media platforms, as the potential growth area for online bingo.
The report quotes Gaming Realms founder Simon Collins, who said: “Social games like BingoGodz are driving a lot of the innovation in mobile and desktop devices – so, in other words, that’s games that combine the best of traditional bingo with the social functions you’d expect to find on Facebook or Foursquare, such as check-in or loyalty systems.”
Those thoughts were echoed by Mr Smyth, who said the next big success in bingo would derive from unscheduled games – what he saw as the next evolutionary step in bingo’s innovation.
He explained: “One of the problems in online bingo has been the lack of innovation from operators. Many use the same software, and offer little variation on games.
“Like traditional bingo halls, the online game is scheduled and that is considered unacceptable for online players, particularly on mobile where people want instant gratification.
“The future surely lies in the operator who can get round this problem and integrate social activity.”
As Mr Soult’s report suggests, the rise of online bingo has proved a double edged sword for the traditional quarters of the industry. While it has allowed established names to compensate for lost revenue it has also opened up the market to newer disruptors – and split long term customers between costly bricks and mortar and laptop screens.
Miles Baron, chief executive of The Bingo Association (BA), said: “The online bingo Industry is here to stay. I don’t see it as a negative force, I think a healthy online industry needs a healthy retail presence.
“Most BA members have an online arm and increasingly measure their success in terms of Brand rather than retail versus online.
“Online faces its own set of challenges with the Remote Gambling Bill and point of Consumption Tax later this year and of course like the rest of us faces increasing regulatory pressures on harm Prevention and Social Responsibility etc.”
Despite the obvious opportunities in the sub-sector, online bingo does face a number of challenges. The Remote Gambling Bill, which received royal assent in May, means online bingo operates will be regulated on a point of consumption basis. It means all operators selling into the British market, whether based here or abroad, will now be required to hold a Gambling Commission licence.
The Fall and Rise of Bingo, a report compiled by Graham Soult, charts retail bingo’s rise, through its peak in the 1970s to the creation of out-of-town, purpose-built venues in the late 1980s, and on to the impacts of The National Lottery’s birth in 1994 and the smoking ban in 2007.
To read the report in full, visit http://www.twolittlefleas.co.uk/fall-and-rise-of-bingo/