An Eden Prairie youth sports group hopes to reverse declining participation with an innovative solution: charitable gambling.
The Eden Prairie Hockey Association (EPHA) began selling pull tabs July 12 at Champps restaurant and sports bar. It also has plans to also sell them at Bowlero starting Aug. 16 and next winter at Green Mill restaurant.
A pull tab is a small gambling card with a tab that can be pulled back to reveal whether prizes have been won. The EPHA believes pull tabs can raise funds that will lower the cost of playing youth hockey and thus increase participation.
The Eden Prairie High School hockey team won the state 2AA championship this year, and girls hockey continues to grow. However, overall the hockey association has seen declining participation since a peak in 2005. This past season, EPHA had 453 youth participants.
“We’re fighting like hell to save EP hockey,” said Linda Elmquist, president of the EPHA, a nonprofit run mostly by volunteers.
“Youth sports are down all around. In Bloomington, the hockey association has consolidated from three organizations down to one. In the Eden Prairie program, the number of players this year is 60 percent of what it was 10 years ago,” said Elmquist.
Elmquist believes the numbers are down primarily because of program costs.
The initial start-up cost for a new player at age five might be $120-$250. Yet, a player up to age 12 advancing to a higher level such as Pee Wee AA might pay more than $3,000 a season. Ice time, tournament costs, and coaching are all factors adding to cost.
Moreover, EPHA pays $500,000 per year for ice time, said Elmquist, which is a cost they feel can be covered by selling pull tabs.
At the same time, hockey groups in Minnesota are pushing for diversity and inclusion on their teams. High participation costs can be a deterrent.
It’s probably no surprise, therefore, to learn that many organizations like EPHA see charitable gambling as a solution.
There are 97 youth hockey programs with charitable gambling licenses across the state, with net profit after tax of $13.3 million. The White Bear Lake Area Hockey Association had gross receipts of $24.1 million in 2020, netting $3.5 million for their hockey programs. Some hockey associations have financed improvements to community buildings and ice rinks.
Ordinance change was required
Still, it took a change in city ordinances to make it happen in Eden Prairie.
The EPHA met Jan. 5, 2021 with Eden Prairie City Council members to talk informally about the charitable-gambling idea and the need to revise city ordinances to allow it. About a month later, on Feb. 2, the council gave final approval to the ordinance change.
The major change is that organizations involved in charitable gambling in Eden Prairie no longer need to own the restaurant or bar where gambling is being held. The original ordinance dates to when there was an Eden Prairie American Legion and it owned a building on Eden Prairie Road.
Now, an organization may lease space for its gambling operation, typically a small area inside a busy bar or restaurant. This allowed the hockey association to get a city permit, which they’ve used so far to strike agreements with Champps, Bowlero, and Green Mill.
Overall, the newly revised ordinance also limits the number of permits the city can issue – currently six, but more if the city’s population continues to grow. Further, any single restaurant or bar can host only one organization, and the organizations with permits need to allocate 10 percent of their net profit to a city fund that helps cover overall public-safety expenses in Eden Prairie and 1 percent of net receipts to the city to help regulate this specific program.
Organizations with permits also are regulated by the Minnesota Gambling Control Board to ensure integrity in operations and provide for the lawful use of net profits.
So far, no other organizations have applied for a permit under the new ordinance, said City Manager Rick Getschow.
The regulations for charitable gambling and the resources required to make it work will likely dissuade many small groups. Meticulous records need to be kept, volunteers needed to be recruited and trained, widespread promotion needs to take place, and more.
“It’s been an undertaking,” Elmquist said.
“There’s an art to managing a pull tabs operation,” she added. “If you leave the boxes out too long, all the prizes get paid out. If you pull them too early, players complain. There’s a subculture like you can’t believe with pull tabs. Players circulate to new locations and play new games.”
EPHA has traditionally also held raffles and fundraisers to help reduce registration fees, equipment costs, and other expenses.
With a little luck, adding a popular game of chance will help youth hockey in Eden Prairie return to its participation heyday, even as it continues to vie for high school championships.
(Mark Weber contributed to this story.)