Charitable gaming — once a bonanza in Indiana — has declined in recent years due to the challenges of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent supply chain disruptions and inflation, with many organizations shutting down entirely.
Small organizations, in particular, suffered the most during those lean months, and many are still trying to recover.
Kendra Waymira has worked at American Legion Post #437, in Selma, for the past two decades, overseeing the organization’s charity game activities. The money helps maintain their physical location—covering building maintenance and utility bills—and also gives back to the community, sponsoring the annual high school student trip to Washington, D.C.
“We make a good profit margin on it. If we didn’t have gambling, we wouldn’t be able to help so many veterans. We wouldn’t be able to help anyone in our community — if someone’s house burned down or if there was a family that lost their only income,” Waymira said.
Although the games’ popularity has waxed and waned over the years, Waymira said the hit from COVID-19 was the “worst” she had seen.
“Since COVID, people just don’t come in and now that prices are going up… I mean, people are really cutting back because they don’t have that money to gamble,” Waymira said. “I’d like to see a comeback and get back to where we were, to see the customers coming in and the numbers coming in and (patrons) being able to spend more money gambling.”
Waymira and her organization are not alone. Since COVID-19 hit Indiana in 2020, charity game numbers have dropped, to $326 million for 2021 in gross revenue compared to $433 million in 2019. That’s a 24% drop.
Leaders of the Indiana Gaming Commission’s charitable gaming division acknowledged the decline in license applications, which they oversee and audit for compliance.
But Mark Mason, the assistant director, pointed to the added burden of supply chain problems in the “paper-intensive” business.
Paper products may include bingo cards or lottery tickets, which charitable gaming organizations must purchase from approved vendors under state law. But Mason said two established distributors went out of business in recent months.
“When I hear from an organization, when I talk to them, they are no longer talking about the pandemic. What they’re concerned about now is that the supply continues to make their games,” Mason said. “That’s not to say that countries are failing — we have groups that are recovering and they’re doing pretty well — but the most small are the ones who worry (whether) they will be able to survive.”
What is driving the decline in charity games?
In a five-year analysis conducted by the Indiana Capital Chronicle, charity games saw a slight decline in 2017 before falling sharply in 2020 and 2021.
But longtime gaming analyst Ed Feigenbaum noted that it has been in slow decline since at least 2009, when it hit $538 million in gross revenue. Gross revenue in 2021 reached $326 million, just $15 million more than in 1994, when the charity game first began.
“I was shocked when I opened the report and saw a lot of familiar names that weren’t there and saw that it was a very thin report,” Feigenbaum said.
In particular, bingo once drew large crowds and millions in revenue, but now lags behind other games, especially lottery games, which routinely see high dollar payouts. For Feigenbaum, much of this has to do with the demographics of charity gamers.
“Bingo was basically a game for the older demographic, and we’re losing that older demographic… Baby boomers are probably the last bastion,” Feigenbaum said. “And COVID certainly killed bingo in terms of being a social activity.”
Being part of an older demographic put bingo participants at greater risk of death from COVID-19, especially in the time before vaccines mitigated that risk.
Jennifer Reske, deputy director of the Indiana Gaming Commission, said many organizations also focused on raffle games over bingo because they are less labor intensive and require fewer people to put on a good event.
“Memberships in organizations are declining, and because of that they have to find ways to carry out activities that fit their new environment,” Reske said.
Feigenbaum said all gaming organizations are rethinking their approach to attracting customers, even for-profit casinos.
“Casinos were built on a different model; they were modeled after the blue-haired old lady who went in to pull that big lever on the slot machine,” Feigenbaum said. “(Millennials), maybe even those 10 years older … they’re not interested in that kind of lonely game.”
He noted that even Las Vegas, the historic center of gaming, offered alternative forms of entertainment, including residencies with pop artists such as Adele, themed nightclubs and all-inclusive resorts.
“To some degree in Vegas, the casinos are random,” Feigenbaum said.
What’s next for charity games?
When asked about the future of gaming, Reske said the Charity Gaming Division does not conduct its own research or analysis, but continues to focus on helping nonprofits with their gaming activities.
“We’re not going to minimize the challenges they face — I think they’ve been significant,” Reske said. “We will continue to work with the organizations and listen to them and do our best to continue to provide (that) service.”
For example, in 2019 the agency worked with lawmakers to streamline the licensing process to help organizations.
Feigenbaum detailed some of the changes he’s seen in the overall gaming industry, including the addition of sports betting, which appeals to a younger audience than traditional gambling.
When it comes to charity games, few observers can forget the 2016 sweepstakes jackpot that totaled $1.89 million in Washington, D.C., at a local Knights of Columbus affiliate. The “Treasure Hunt” raffle event, now used by many charities, can attract hundreds of spectators over several weeks and send the prizes sky-high.
“It’s a different industry than it was a few years ago, and it’s going to have to evolve even more,” Feigenbaum said.
The Indiana Capital Chronicle is an independent, nonprofit news organization covering state government, politics and elections.