At one time, bingo was one of the most popular pastimes in the United Kingdom. First played in Britain in the 1700s, ‘number clubs’ became immensely popular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That was an early version of the game that would eventually become bingo, with the ninety-ball game being a wartime favourite.
Bingo didn’t become legalised for gambling until the 1960s, with the first clubs set up soon after. At its height, there were thousands of bingo clubs around the United Kingdom, but the numbers fell dramatically in the late 1990s. There were numerous reasons for that, which we’ll look to explain in more detail in this article.
The Height of Bingo
The ninety-ball version of bingo began to grow in popularity during the First World War. It was a game played for recreational purposes and in order to raise money for charity causes, not really thought of as being a form of gambling. Its popularity grew and grew in the years that followed, especially in the United Kingdom.
The real turn for bingo came with the Betting & Gaming Act of 1960. It was at that point that bingo became a legalised form of gambling and it began to be played for more than just casual recreational reasons. Companies were soon set up to take advantage of the new laws on bingo playing, as were bingo halls were people could play the game together.
As in indication of just how popular bingo was during the initial years when it could be played for cash prizes, the membership level of bingo clubs in the UK stood at fourteen million by 1963. That was a huge figure for the time, with Mecca Bingo claiming that as many as one hundred and fifty thousand people visited their bingo halls each day by the mid-1960s.
By the middle of the 1980s, purpose-built out-of-town bingo halls began to be built in order to accommodate the huge numbers of people who wanted to play bingo for prizes. There were approximately one thousand six hundred bingo venues available for people to visit by the end of the 1980s, making it one of the most popular pastimes in the country.
Virtually every town and city around the United Kingdom had a bingo hall during the game’s height. Every year bingo halls were opening up, with seemingly no slowdown in the amount of people who were looking to get involved with playing. It seemed to those involved in the industry as though the bubble was never going to burst.
Why Bingo Was So Popular
There’s no doubt that the prizes on offer were part of what attracted people to playing bingo. Not content with just offering one prize for the person who managed to call House, bingo offered numerous chances to win depending on the game that was being played. We’re not talking just cuddly toys being on offer here, either. Cash prizes were common at bingo clubs.
Given the lack of skill needed to succeed playing bingo, it soon became a game that people could get involved in even when they didn’t have much talent at other things. On top of that, the popularity of the game meant that it was a chance for people to meet up with friends or even create new ones. Millions of people would play every week, offering a chance for socialisation.
The reality of bingo was far different from the expectation. Bingo might well have grown out of church halls, raising money for local causes, but it was soon the focal point of towns and cities. It was an exciting game, with players just as likely to stay for a drink after it was over as they were to buy tickets in the first place. It’s part of what was so appealing about it as a game.
Obviously the more popular bingo became, the bigger the prizes that were available. When multi-venue companies began to increase their revenue, they were able to try to outdo each other in terms of the prizes on offer. Halls could be built in industrial areas, meaning more people could fit into them and the growth continued.
The Start of the Decline
There is some debate around when the usage of bingo halls started to decline. There’s no question that bingo’s popularity was at its height during the 1960s and 1970s and into the 1980s, at which point the number of people who attended bingo halls exceeded those that would go to watch a top-flight football match.
We do know that by 1999 the number of people turning up to bingo halls had dropped by around ninety percent. What, then, happened in the decade or so prior that led to such a fall in numbers for what was once one of the nation’s most popular games? With bingo clubs closing to the tune of twenty-one percent between 1995 and 2000, it’s fair to say that something did.
One of the main things that many people believe took a chunk out of bingo’s players was the launch of the National Lottery. It came into being in 1994, suddenly promising people millions of pounds for an initial investment that was far smaller that you’d pay to play bingo. The possibility of seeing friends was outweighed by the chance to win big.
Soon bingo halls saw such a decline in visitor numbers that they began to close their doors relatively regularly rather than opening new venues. What was one the reason for an increase in prize money soon became the reason for its fall: less venues meant fewer players, which meant a decline in the size of prize money which meant more people decided not to bother.
The Smoking Ban
If the National Lottery was the moment that the popularity of bingo halls started to decline the smoking ban that was introduced in 2006 and 2007 was something of a final nail in the game’s coffin. The reality of bingo has always been that it appeals predominantly to an older crowd, with older people also being more likely to smoke.
There was far less known about the dangers of smoking in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, which was reflected in the fact that cigarette companies were on of the biggest sponsors of sporting events during that time. Older people either didn’t know about the risks or, if they were pointed out, didn’t care. Smoking and bingo were interlinked activities.
Once smoking was no longer allowed inside venues, such as bingo halls, however, the game’s popularity took a hit. Ten percent of bingo attendees said that they would stop going once the smoking ban came into effect, whilst one in three people said they’d go less often. Given that two-thirds of bingo players were smokers at the time, that was a big chunk.
Fourteen percent of people surveyed around the issue of smoking at the time said that they would quit in order to keep playing, with most just going out for a smoke in between games. Bingo halls were always more likely to be adversely affected than pubs, for example, because pubs could create outdoor areas for people to drink and smoke.
That people could go out between bingo games should have meant that the clubs wouldn’t suffer too badly, but previously people would have stayed indoors and played on the slot machines present in bingo clubs whilst having a smoke. The shift outside meant that the slots were no longer played and they were a major money-maker for bingo clubs.
With cheap flights to foreign destinations meaning that more people were going abroad than to traditional British seaside resorts, the smoking ban further reduced the potential audience for bingo halls in the locations that they were most commonly based. The reduction in numbers of visitors hit bingo halls as hard as the seaside towns.
The Rise of Online Bingo
If the National Lottery saw a decline in bingo hall attendees and the smoking ban put the final nail in the game’s coffin then the proliferation of the internet served to ensure that it was definitely dead. The ability to play bingo online meant that a younger audience began to play, but that bingo halls themselves were becoming virtually useless.
In the nine years between 2005 and 2014, the number of bingo halls in use dropped from around six hundred to less than four hundred. More than six and a half thousand bingo hall employees lost their jobs in the same period. Eighty million people visited bingo halls in 2005, but it was around forty-three million in 2014.
In 2013, seventeen bingo halls closed permanently in the United Kingdom, with only one opening. The only thing that offered the industry a sense of hope at the time was the fact that support for its future was strongest amongst people aged between eighteen and twenty-four, even though it was most common for players to be women in their forties and fifties.
As bingo moved to be a more and more online-centric game, its popularity on that front increased. As many as three-quarters of UK-based adults own a smartphone, so it makes sense for people to be happier to play online wherever they want rather than travelling to a specific venue in order to play the game.
Online bingo is playable via an app or an internet browser, making it significantly more convenient for players than physically having to be in a certain location. There’s also the fact that games are available virtually any time of day or night, with bingo cards costing relatively little bit having high jackpots available. Little wonder, then, that people are going online rather than to bingo clubs.
High Taxes Are Killing Bingo
The final thing worth mentioning in relation to the decline of bingo halls is the increased taxes that bingo venues had to pay during some of their tougher times. In 2009, the Chancellor’s budget increased the amount of tax that bingo halls would have to pay from fifteen percent to twenty-two percent, which was a large increase.
The tax issue was one that began to be reversed after those in the industry protested to the Chancellor that the tax was unfair and one that was killing bingo. Given that bookmakers were being asked to pay fifteen percent at the same time and the National Lottery paid twelve percent, it’s easy to see why the bingo industry felt that something needed to change.
In 2014, the Chancellor of the Exchequer released his budget to parliament and in it the tax payable by bingo halls was reduced to ten percent. This gave bingo venues a lifeline and allowed the industry to start a period of recovery that saw the game once again begin to increase in terms of popularity, for a number of reasons.
What Does The Future Hold for Bingo?
The decision of the Chancellor to lower the tax rate for bingo venues in 2014 was an attempt to give the industry a shot in the arm. With more than three and a half people estimated to play bingo online by 2018 in comparison to the fifty thousand or so who did it a decade earlier, it’s clear that the popularity of bingo in modern times still exists.
It is also clear from the popularity of alternative bingo nights that the future of the industry might not be based on following traditional routes. Bongo’s Bingo is a good example, with the craze starting in Liverpool before finding its way out to the rest of the country. The big players are noticing too, with Mecca Bingo teaming up with the founder of Rebel Bingo.
The Social Bingo Academy was the venture and hosted Bonkers Bingo, which found that its fastest growing age group was eighteen to twenty-four-year-olds. The popularity of such nights is surprising when you consider that it actively promotes the fact that it’s a night filled with ‘rubbish prizes’. It’s probably the ‘beers and cocktails’ that appeal to the youthful crowd.
That being said, the Head of Customer Events for Rank, Barry Lyons, admitted himself that the events are ‘not key drivers of profit’ but are instead a way of getting a younger crowd to understand ‘the appeal of retail bingo’. Younger people, it seemed, wanted a night out that was ‘based on entertainment’ rather than the old-fashioned nature of ‘eyes down, look in’.
In 2016, the United Kingdom saw its first purpose-built bingo venue open for the first time in nearly seven years. Not only that, but it was one thousand seat venue, which was located in Southampton. It aimed for a younger audience, promising a ‘pub feel’ by offering sofas and music. It seems that you still can’t beat the buzz of playing bingo in person.