Bingo knights arm against onslaught from Camelot: Lobbying has begun to counter the threat posed by big lottery prizes. John Shepherd reports

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WINNING money comes a clear second to enjoyment for the 3 million adults who regularly play bingo in Britain. But coming a clear second to the National Lottery would be far from fun for the country's 950 bingo clubs.

As a result, the industry is gearing up for an intense lobbying campaign to enable it to compete.

No one knows what impact the lottery will have on bingo - or indeed on the rest of the UK's gaming and gambling industry - but the consensus is that some financial damage will be inflicted on the pounds 1.4bn-a-year industry.

As Mike Robinson, managing director of Top Rank and chairman of the Bingo Association of Great Britain, says: 'I don't know exactly what will happen. But the lottery will have some effect, perhaps 3 to 4 per cent could be taken away.'

Signs of concern are already visible in the industry's recent push to have the ceiling on its top prize on its national game raised from pounds 75,000 to pounds 250,000.

But lobbying will probably focus on the 1968 Gaming Act. The bingo industry's main concerns about the lottery stem from the stiff regulatory requirements of the Act, from which the lottery is virtually exempt - it comes under the auspices of the Department of National Heritage rather than the Home Office-controlled Gaming Board.

As a result, Camelot, the consortium that bid successfully for the lottery, will be allowed to advertise on television. Bingo cannot. Camelot will be able to publicise the identity of lottery winners and the sums they have won - as can football pools companies. Again, bingo cannot.

Bingo club owners say these big differences in regulations are unfair, particularly since bingo is at the softest end of gaming. 'All we want is fair competition. The huge advertising campaign planned to support the lottery is of particular concern to our association,' says Mr Robinson.

The industry can cite many examples worldwide where the introduction of a lottery has blown gaping holes in the bingo business: in Texas it prompted a 30 per cent decline in bingo stake 7money.

Bingo is a commercial fledgling. Despite a European history that can be traced back to a 14th century Italian game called lotto, it only became legal as a commercial game in the UK with the 1961 Gaming Act. Despite rigid regulatory controls, the legislation opened the door to cash prizes.

Since then the game of bingo has become a habitual pastime for many, a factor optimists in the industry repeatedly cite as a reason it will survive relatively unscathed. Bingo has also proved to be virtually recession-proof, a reflection of loyal players - mostly women, with an average age of 47 - who typically spend pounds 12 on a night out.

Total annual admissions exceed 105 million people - or about 110,000 per club on average - enough to fill Wembley Stadium nearly one-and-a-half times over.

The club culture is central to bingo's pulling power, and a key to its ability to generate revenues. The traditional converted cinema is fast being replaced by purpose-built clubs costing up to pounds 3m each - but which will typically generate sales 7of pounds 600,000 in the first year of operation.

Much of this comes from ancillary sales. The clubs incorporate diners, bars and banks of fruit machines - all targeted at the customer's pocket. Of the industry's annual pounds 1.4bn turnover, only half is stake money. The rest comes from admission fees, drinks, food and fruit machines in the club.

Computer technology has become a useful marketing tool. Membership cards are electronically swiped at each visit - infrequent visitors are informed about the recent big winners at the club, and even invited to celebrate their birthday playing bingo.

Eric Morley, the man who launched commercial bingo in the UK just 24 hours after the 1961 Gaming Act became law, clearly thinks that this welter of market forces is strong enough to carry the industry forward.

'Bingo is a club. Mrs Smith goes with Mrs Jones and they sit down and have a natter. And even if they don't win anything, they've had a good social occasion.'

More than 2,000 turned out for the opening afternoon of bingo at the Royal dance hall in Tottenham, London, in 1961.

Admission charges were the equivalent of 15p with prizes of pounds 2- pounds 3. The jackpot was about pounds 50 - today it is up to pounds 75,000.

The current lucrative national game arose from a bold circumnavigation by Mr Morley of the 1961 Gaming Act, using a draw in the Isle of Man.

The offshore operation was outlawed by the 1968 Gaming Act, and the national game did not resurface until 1986 as a way of arresting a sharp decline in admissions to bingo clubs. The chance to win pounds 50,000 for a 25p stake quickly boosted memberships.

Bingo operators - from the market leader Top Rank, part of the Rank organisation, through to Gala Clubs, owned by Bass, newer entrants like First Leisure and Vardon, and a myriad of small independents - now want to take the national game a stage further.

(Photograph omitted)

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