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New law allows 'network bingo' for Va. charities

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RICHMOND — Hundreds of Virginia nonprofit organizations hope to reverse a steady decline in bingo revenue by joining forces for a weekly game offering a top prize of up to $25,000.

Legislation amending the state’s charitable gaming law to allow “network bingo” takes effect Jan. 1. Players will be able to buy a card for the game at any participating bingo hall, where they can watch an online video stream as the numbers are pulled at a centralized location. A state regulatory board will determine what percentage of sales must go for prizes and to the sponsoring organization.

The idea is to expand the pool of players to allow bigger jackpots, which will entice even more people to play and boost revenue for charities.

Chuck Lessin, legislative director for the Virginia Charitable Bingo Association, said about 400 organizations in the state are licensed to conduct charitable bingo games offering jackpots that cannot exceed $1,000. Over the past 15 years, he said, those organizations have seen revenue decline from about $500 million to about $265 million a year.

“We’re trying to stem the tide,” Lessin said. “We think this will generate some new interest and perhaps go to the bottom line.”

Donnie Etz of Chesterfield County, who has run a bingo game for the James River High School Athletic Association for several years, believes offering a fresh game will help.

“Anytime you start adding the potential of bigger prizes, it gets the players excited,” he said. “It’s hard to say if we’re ever going to see the good old days, but we may get some new blood when this gets advertised.”

For Etz, the “good old days” were seven or eight years ago, when there were 20 to 30 bingo sessions each week in the Richmond area and as many as 140 people participated in his organization’s bingo game to raise money for James River High School sports teams’ travel expenses and equipment. Now there are three times as many competing sessions, and the James River High School bingo game is drawing 90 to 100 players, he said.

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