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Parishioner Ethel Kelly of Watertown, Mass., plays bingo in the basement of Saint Patrick Church. Bingo revenue in Canada is declining at a rate of about 10 per cent a year — and charities are feeling the pinch. (Josh Reynolds/Associated Press)

Think bingo and you're likely to conjure up images of blue-haired women cramming smoke-filled church basements, tents at county fairs or legion halls in small towns.

Bingo's been a mainstay of fundraising for small and large charities for decades and a form of entertainment for generations. But bingo — in its traditional form — is in decline across the country.

Competition from casinos and online gaming — as well as smoking bans — have hit charity bingos hard.

Over the past 10 years, revenue at charity bingos has declined from about $250 million a year to about $50 million in Ontario alone. The Ontario Charitable Gaming Association says a decade ago, 6,000 charities relied on bingo for at least some of their revenue. Today, that number has declined to about 3,000.

Most of the money raised in local bingo halls goes to local charities.

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Bingo has always been well down on the list of favourite games of chance among gamblers. Statistics Canada reported in 2002 that bingo was played by about eight per cent of gamblers — well behind buying lottery tickets (65 per cent), instant win tickets (36 per cent) and going to a casino (22 per cent).

But bingo players are among the most loyal gamblers around — 21 per cent of them say they play at least weekly. And — yes — women outnumber men at the bingo tables by more than a two to one ratio.

Loyal players

Elizabeth Goldfield has been playing bingo the old-fashioned way for decades — on paper cards and a dabber to mark her numbers. The 78-year-old woman is a regular at the Boardwalk Gaming Centre in Barrie, Ont.

'I come four times a week, I bring all my money over here.'—Elizabeth Goldfield

It's no dark and dingy smoke-filled hall. The centre looks more like a casino than a traditional bingo hall. There's neon lighting and casino-like seating.

"I come four times a week, I bring all my money over here. It's something to do. I'm old, what else have I got to do? I only won once, a thousand dollars."

Goldfield and her 81-year-old brother Maurice Cohn are usually hunched over their cards at a table in the centre of the room, playing by themselves. He won a $750 jackpot in February. He split the take with his sister.

But Goldfield and Cohn are a dying breed. Lynn Cassidy, the executive director of the Ontario Charitable Gaming Association, says the game needs to be modernized to staunch the decline. There were more than 200 bingo halls across the province 10 years ago. Now there are about 70.

In Windsor, there were 15 bingo centres 10 years ago. Today, there are four. In some large communities, there are none.

"The industry has declined due to competing forms of entertainment and that's not only the rapid expansion of government gaming in the past 10 years — race tracks with slots, charity casinos, the large commercial casinos — but also other forms of entertainment that people have today, like movies and the internet, home theatre and that kind of thing."

'We need to update the whole industry, we need to modernize the industry.'—Lynn Cassidy

There was a time when just about anybody could run a bingo. But that changed in the 1980s when provincial governments got into gambling big time. Since then, most bingo halls have been run by commercial operators who are licensed by provinces. Most of the proceeds go to charity.

"We need to update the whole industry, we need to modernize the industry," Cassidy said. "We're in a world of technology and we need to move forward that way."

The new bingo

Bingo is going electronic. In Ontario, there are five eBingo centres including the Boardwalk Gaming Centre in Barrie. Along with the traditional bingo tables, the centre includes six computers, arranged in a circle. You have the choice of playing bingo the way grandma did, or doing it on a computer.

"With electronics you can run outside or go to the washroom and come back in two or three minutes and with one touch of a button you can catch up on all your cards so you don't miss a bingo," Tom Aikins, facility manager at the Boardwalk Gaming Centre said.

An added bonus, Aikins says, "The electronics have attracted a male audience that we haven't attracted before."

'The electronics have attracted a male audience that we haven't attracted before.'—Tom Aikins

On weekends, the centre features free buffets. Aikins says the average person spends $35 to $50. "For three or four hours of entertainment, it's great value."

EBingo began as a pilot project five years ago. Now the bingo industry wants to move full speed ahead. It's lobbying the Ontario government to expand the number of eBingo outlets, let bingo halls include slot machines and other gaming technology as well as full-service restaurants and live entertainment.

While there have been hints of support, so far, the province hasn't acted. And that's fine with Maurice Cohn. He prefers his paper and his dabbers.

"I don't like the electronic — too boring. You just sit there and watch, nothing else to do. It takes the fun out of it."

But for Lynn Cassidy of the Ontario Charitable Gaming Association, help better come soon.

"The reality is … the industry is declining roughly at about 10 per cent a year. We're hoping we can get some direction prior to another election because then you have to start again even if it is the same government."

With files from Maureen Brosnahan