A year in, pull-tabs for stadium failing

Published 2:14 pm Saturday, September 14, 2013

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s attempt to use electronic gambling in bars to raise money for the new Vikings stadium has proven to be a bust.

Even Gov. Mark Dayton acknowledged as much in a Minnesota Public Radio News report published Friday that analyzed how early assumptions about the electronic pull-tabs proved so wrong. Dayton told the station that the experiment grew out of a wide understanding that a stadium plan relying on general tax revenue would not prevail.

“The National Transportation Safety Board says that in an airplane crash, there’s seldom just one factor, one mistake that is the sole causation, and I would say in this case as well,” Dayton said. “You know, there were multiple errors made, and in hindsight, obviously we were terribly wrong. But everything, as far as I know, was done in good faith with the best of intentions.”

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When the stadium bill was approved, there was a hope both bars and gamblers would embrace the tablet-style gaming devices. It was expected that 2,500 bars would install more than 15,000 games, but the latest count has about 300 bars and about 1,300 games.

“These projections were as good as anybody could do,” Dayton said. Minnesota is the first state to offer the electronic pull-tabs on such a wide scale.

Minnesota has now shifted to backup funding sources — a one-time levy on cigarettes and a corporate tax — to fund bonds for its share of the $975 million stadium.

Former Republican state Sen. Amy Koch, who was involved in the early stadium bill negotiations, now runs a Maple Lake bowling alley that offers the pull-tabs.

For bars, “it’s incredibly expensive to put them in,” Koch said. “I’m not a big bar. There are smaller bars, yet. There’s no way they’re going to be able to afford to buy equipment and take six, eight months to pay off your investment and then see maybe a couple hundred bucks a month. It’s not worth the trouble.”

Koch added that many customers still prefer paper pull-tabs, which are small cardboard pieces where players flip back flaps to see if they have a matching sequence that makes them a winner.

Al Lund, who heads Allied Charities of Minnesota, said charitable gambling operators were reluctant to break out of their old habits, using the same games and the same suppliers they’ve been using for decades.

“The loyalty that charities had to their distributors was underestimated,” Lund said.

Gamblers have their own take.

Bob Wold, who has tried different versions of the games, doesn’t regard the electronic pull-tabs as much of an improvement on the old-fashioned pull-tabs.

Some machines are “very interactive, like a slot machine, pretty fun,” Wold said. “Other ones, they’re basically just like paper ones, except that they go beep.”