Can Live Bingo Learn From its Online Counterpart?

The game could be almost up for traditional bingo halls.

It would seem that whereas more people than ever are playing the game online, fewer folk than before are playing the game in halls and community centres. And this trend shows no signs of being reversed anytime soon.

Although the rise of online bingo has been credited to some extent with reviving the traditional industry, live bingo is still very much on life support, as interest ebbs away from a sector that is often regarded as staid and dusty. Online bingo has wings, whereas its real world equivalent looks like something of a lame duck. If we take the much-studied bingo slump of the UK as broadly representative of what’s going on across the rest of the world, the steep angle of this collapse in business becomes all the more evident.

Until as recently as 2005, new bingo venues were opening up across the country every single year, but since this date it’s largely been a pattern of managed decline. The dismal figures speak for themselves. Whereas there were over 600 registered bingo halls in 2005, by 2014 this number had slipped to fewer than 400 – and it’s still in free fall. The live bingo demographic is tilted heavily in favour of the elderly, with the average age of participants logged at around the 60 plus mark. There’s a prominent gender disparity too, with around three-quarters of this contingent being female. This is a demographic that is, quite literally, dying out. Around a third of all bingo halls have closed their doors as bingo moved online. That still leaves over a million people playing live bingo on a weekly basis, but represents a considerable dwindling in overall popularity. Live bingo venues functioned as communities in their own right, social hubs where people came together to chat and share jokes around a common pursuit.

At the same time as the flame of live bingo began to flicker and die, online bingo began to take up the torch. By 2012, the UK online bingo market alone was worth a whopping £259 million, or around $328 million.

As Wi-Fi took off, the concept of the chatroom lobby enabled the social atmosphere of the bingo club to be duplicated online. And this has paid off handsomely, attracting both bingo regulars to the online experience, and building an entirely new demographic, considerably younger than to be found in traditional bingo halls. The best bingo sites encourage this spirit of community, and players relish the chance to exchange banter and online chit-chat as they settle down to play. The volume of new online bingo sites opened over the past 12 months further illustrates this growth, with many of these offering welcome deposit bonuses of up to 500% to attract new customers – many of whom may have never played the game online before.

Research conducted on behalf of the BBC indicates that 20% of UK online players are aged between 18 and 24, whilst 62% of those surveyed were under 45 years of age. This amounts to a younger, sprightlier, tech-savvy audience, and one that will doubtless grow in line with new technological developments, accessing their favourite game via mobile apps and laptops.

Can live bingo learn the lessons of this online renaissance? Or is the industry doomed to become a hollowed-out relic of its former glory, with halls shut down and boarded up, never to reopen?

Recent signs point toward lessons being learned. To win new customers, live bingo has been compelled to innovate, and not before time.

UK bingo duty was slashed in 2014 from 20% to 10% in an effort to stimulate new investment, and new ventures have sprung into being that seek to redefine the traditional bingo experience in terms that make the game appealing to the hipster generation. “Alternative bingo” could breathe new life into the game.

“Rebel Bingo” in London, and “Bongo’s Bingo”, first in Manchester, and now in Liverpool are examples of this new wave bingo phenomenon, offering a manic bingo experience pitched somewhere between conventional “eyes down” bingo and a full-on rave – flashing lights, thumping music, even DJ’s to call out the numbers; all these elements are being deployed to transform the live bingo experience and introduce an atmosphere of studied irreverence to the proceedings. Bingo can be fun, say the promoters – bingo must be fun in order for it to survive.

Can these initiatives succeed in revitalising the live bingo industry? Or is this just the death throes of a dying sector? Has the world moved on, or is there room enough in it still for live bingo as a force for social interaction and community cohesion? Only time will tell. It always does.