Bingo was one of the most popular leisure activities in the UK for the better part of four decades. The game’s popularity peaked in 1963 (three years after it was legalised by the British government) when there 14 million registered players in the country.
Instead of continuing to grow in popularity at the turn of the Millennium, the draw of bingo began to wane. Between 2004 and 2014 the number of active bingo halls in the UK almost halved to 400.
The smoking ban, rising operating costs and a failure to appeal to a younger crowd were blamed for the falling playing numbers. Bingo itself wasn’t broken though, it was just the way that it was being managed.
Recent industry figures show that playing numbers are rising healthily. Now, there are four million registered players in the UK, which in comparison to the 1963 figures is not amazing. However, in the context of a game that was supposedly ‘dying out’, it does represent an enormous turnaround in popularity.
Read on to find out what caused bingo to brink itself back from the brink and become a nationwide favourite once again.
The Fall Of Bingo
To understand how bingo has recovered to put itself back into the spotlight, it’s important to understand how it went from being more popular than football and rugby to being an endangered game.
The biggest reason behind bingo’s declining popularity was the decision taken by industry leaders not to modernise the game as the decades rolled by. When bingo was at its peak in 1963, the UK was a very different place to what it is now.
One societal change that the bingo industry was powerless to resist was the rise in cheap flights abroad. In the 1960s and perhaps even the 1970s the average Brit had never left the country on holiday.
Blackpool, Brighton and Skegness were the most popular holiday destinations for Brits in those decades. Bingo halls were very much one of the main draws for holidaymakers who visited these seaside towns.
Soon however it was possible to purchase a flight to Spain for little over the cost of a train ticket to Scarborough. Understandably, tourists began to ignore the seaside resorts in the UK in favour of sun-soaked destinations in Spain and Italy.
Bingo halls adapted to this by focusing heavily on establishing themselves inland and becoming core parts of local communities. Many experts claim that the smoking ban of 2004 was the final nail in the coffin for bingo halls, as it broke up the community feel of venues, with players spending more time socialising in smoking areas than whilst playing.
However the main reason for bingo’s falling popularity was its failure to adapt. When halls moved inland from the coast, they focused heavily on appealing to middle aged customers.
This approach didn’t change for decades, leaving a massive gap once those original customers had grown too old to visit a hall. Bingo had effectively forgotten about the next generation of customers, and paid the price at the turn of the Millennium.
A few years before bingo really began to hit rock bottom there was an explosion in the popularity of internet gambling. Online casinos and sports betting companies were amongst the first industries to take advantage of the internet to attract new customers.
In 2008 bingo followed where those industries had led and began to market online bingo websites to a younger, more affluent demographic. Internet suppliers had seen how bingo had suffered previously from only focusing on an older, more ‘traditional’ playing demographic.
The very first internet providers specifically targeted people between 25 and 40 years old. Reaching this demographic was achieved through…
TV Adverts – Television advertising campaigns were suddenly focused on time periods when a younger demographic would be watching. They also featured younger celebrities such as Mel B, who would speak to a younger player.
Early adverts were also at pains to shake the image of bingo as a boring game, instead opting for louder and bolder adverts.
Bingo Affiliates – Television advertising is fine, but to reach internet users bingo suppliers realised they had to move their advertising campaign online. Bingo affiliate sites are effectively comparison websites.
Suppliers from almost every company regularly use these sites as proxy advertisers. Website users benefit from being able to compare online bingo suppliers, the website benefits through increased traffic and revenues and bingo companies benefit by having their company’s name being shared to a wide audience of bingo lovers.
Light hearted comedy and bingo calling have forever gone hand in hand, with callers being heralded for comedic lines such as, “8 and 8, two fat ladies…” So it was no surprise in the 1990s when bingo was reclaimed by another part of the comedy community.
In Seattle Judy Werle – the director of the Chicken Support Brigade – teamed bingo together with drag queens as a way of raising money to support members of the LGBT+ community who were affected by AIDS.
The ‘two fat ladies’ jokey bingo call soon took on a new, edgier take. Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s drag bingo grew in popularity, spreading throughout the United States and into Europe and Australasia.
Ru Paul’s reality TV show Drag Race helped to thrust drag queens into the public eye, thus massively increasing the popularity of drag bingo. Weekly drag bingo events are no a regular fixture in almost every major city around the world (and some rubbish cities too!)
Bingo halls who had been in desperate need of a saviour found one in the shape of glamorous, sequin clad drag queens. It wasn’t exactly a match made in heaven, but inexplicably it worked.
Despite having higher participation levels than most sports in the United Kingdom in the 1960s and 1970s, bingo soon fell from grace. Its problem was a failure to adapt and change to shifting public trends and interests.
That failure to move with the times was almost terminal for bingo, until the internet pioneers remarketed it. At time of writing bingo is still nowhere near its previous highs, but it is doing everything right to draw in the next generation of players.