When Queensland’s Bardon Bowls Club announced in a Facebook post early this month that it was doing away with ‘pokies’, the suburban club joined a growing trend moving away from gambling machines.
The club’s volunteer president Trevor Worth announced that the club would be removing its last eight poker machines, having already reduced the number from 16 last year.
“We came to the natural conclusion that poker machines don’t add value. Very few people now play them and it doesn’t have an impact on bar income,” Worth explained.
A changing demographic over the last 20 years and a change of leadership three years ago contributed to the decision, he said.
“Bowls clubs are closing at an unfortunate pace, because they haven’t been able to change.
“You can repurpose the pokie area with a function space, and earn $1,000 a night with a couple of thousand dollars in bar sales,” he said.
“The pokies didn’t generate a steady income stream and the community would appreciate being able to use the space, so it was a natural decision rather than a heavy one to remove them.”
Instead of pokies, the club has invested in food trucks, improved wine lists and craft beer. It now stocks an array of locally-sourced beers from breweries such as Newstead, Green Beacon, and Eumundi.
“We had an offer for this big tap contract for a six-tap deal, but we turned it down in favour of more smaller independent breweries,” he said.
“We did that because we felt that’s what the market wanted.”
Similarly, Penny Ryan at the Petersham Bowls Club in NSW, which was founded in 1896, has found that craft beer was a way to attract a totally new audience.
“When we took it over, tap contracts at bowls clubs were with Carlton and United to get cheap deals. We decided not to sign up with a bigger brewery.”
Now, the club has six taps of locally-sourced independent craft beer, and another six from the rest of Australia.
“I think live music and craft beer is the way forward for bowls clubs, people come in to see what’s on tap and to try something new.”
The club has not had pokies on site in 10 years, and the team made a conscious decision to move away from them.
“The club did go under in 2007 but the community got together and came up with a proposal to run it themselves. Since then we’ve completely changed the model of how we make money.
“An older gentleman’s bowling club just isn’t profitable.
“Older-style bowling clubs are heavily reliant on pokies. It takes a new model and a different way of thinking to survive.
“You can survive without pokies and it feels good at the end of the day, keeping people happy whilst not taking this easy money,” she said.
Out with the old, in with the new
Similarly at the Flemington & Kensington Bowls Club in Victoria, pokies have been off the agenda since the late 1990s.
Oliver Warren, club secretary, said they only had a few poker machines to begin with and were facing stiff competition from venues with more, so it was imperative that they make a change.
“Whether you’ve got pokies or not attracts a type of person in the club. Where we are is becoming gentrified, and people don’t associate with pokies, it’s just not part of their lifestyle. If we had pokies it would be a very different club.”
He said that the move to craft beer after getting rid of the pokies was met with a little controversy, having previously served Carlton Light and Draught at the bar.
“It was highly controversial at the time to have a Coopers pale ale in the fridge, but the margins are pretty good on craft beers.
“They’re ok on draught but some of what we source that cost us less than draught you can sell for more than you can sell draught for.
“Big brewers have craft lines like Little Creatures, but it was definitely the right decision for us and we’d not look at mainstream faux craft beers.”
“We’ve been lucky in some respects because the area we’re in has been gentrifying for the last 20 years or so. We’ve brought the community on the journey with us and we’ve opened our doors to the local community to make it a place people can come, have a craft beer and enjoy a friendly atmosphere.”
Diversification into new areas such as live music, craft beer and food is the way forward, according to Bowls Australia’s national development and government relations manager, Chris Wallace.
“Bowling Clubs around the country have been learning to diversify their offerings and income streams for a number of years now,” he said.
“Bowling Clubs are also increasingly becoming community hubs and venues for many more activities than just bowls.”
Australian clubs and the pokies
A government report on Australian Gambling Statistics found that in 2016/17 there were 113,506 gaming machines in clubs of all types. That equates to 58 per cent of all machines in the country.
There has been a long history of pokies at bowls clubs specifically, and many clubs have relied on pokies as an essential revenue stream. Some have even turned into mini-casinos, such as New South Wales’ St Johns Park Bowling Club, which hit the headlines in 2017 for raking in $37 million across its 398 poker machines in one year.
Gambling machines have been a contentious subject, but they are lucrative for operators and the government.
The Gambling Statistics report calculated that total revenue from real-life gaming machine operations reached $144.2 billion in 2016-17.
Despite the big money in pokies, there has been a downwards trend and a plateau in numbers across the country, with caps on pokie numbers and the indoor smoking ban in 2005 which hit pokie revenues hard. Indeed a Victorian study suggested that the implementation of the smoking ban correlated with a 14 per cent decline in gambling machine spend.
Bowls clubs across Australia are adapting to changing tastes and becoming more family and millennial-friendly with a focus on new trends, evolving to changing demographics with live music, entertainment and craft beer.