Community clubs have incurred multimillion-dollar losses during the coronavirus pandemic, heightening fears more venues could be forced to shut their doors.
One industry group now wants the ACT government to rethink "unrealistic" timeframes for planned gaming reforms, including the introduction of new $5 bet limits, to ease pressure on clubs.
ACT Gaming Minister Shane Rattenbury said the ACT government understood the pain the industry had endured in the past year, but he remained optimistic about the sector's future.
Financial accounts published by Canberra's clubs have revealed the huge cost of the pandemic to the industry, which was shut down in late March and not allowed to fully reopen until early August.
Clubs saw revenues plummet after being ordered to switch off their poker machines, with the financial hit offsetting gains venues had made earlier in the financial year.
Two of Canberra's largest club groups combined for losses exceeding $7 million.
Vikings Group, which has four venues in Tuggeranong, reported a $5.4 million loss in 2019-20 - the largest in its 40-year history.
Gross gaming revenue was $18.3 million, a more than 20 per cent fall from the previous financial year.
Vikings had been on track for a "pleasing financial result" before the pandemic struck, according to its annual report, which also noted the club remained in a strong position and had been able to sustain its losses through the shutdown.
Southern Cross Club, which has venues in Woden, Greenway and Jamison, suffered a $2.14 million loss in 2019-20, having projected a surplus of more than $1 million earlier in the year.
The club also experienced a more than 20 per cent drop in revenue from pokies.
Raiders Club reported a more than $5 million drop in gaming revenue from its venues in Gungahlin, Belconnen and Weston, but the group still managed to report a profit of $634,650 for the financial year.
As with other community clubs, Raiders were able to access the federal government's JobKeeper wage subsidy, which covered more than $1 million in staff expenses, according to its annual report.
In the Burns Club's annual report, president Athol Chalmers said the club's $275,285 loss was "virtually entirely due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic".
Belconnen Soccer Club reported a $421,000 loss, on the back of a 30 per cent drop in gaming revenue and 26 per cent fall in bar takings.
The club blamed the coronavirus pandemic for the closure of its Hawker venue in October, one of two venues to shut its doors in 2020 along with Eastlake Kaleen.
Clubs ACT chief executive Gwyn Rees said community clubs had been enjoying a relatively strong year before the sudden shutdown in March, which cast immediate doubt over venues' future.
"You had chief executives for the first time having to stand down staff, entire workforces even, and not being able to provide answers about their future," Mr Rees said.
After the horror 2020, Mr Rees predicted more clubs would close as a result of the ACT government's next phase of gaming reforms, which includes the introduction of $5 bet limits, $100 load up limits and a reduction in overall poker machine numbers to 3500 by 2025.
"The shifting of goalposts is hugely damaging as it denies clubs any certainty in operation," he said. "They cannot budget or plan as they never know when or how they will be ordered to change their business model."
Mr Rees was resigned to the changes being brought in, but believed the government could limit the pain on clubs. He described the two-year lead-in time before the rollout of $5 bet limits as "unrealistic", suggesting clubs should instead be given the option to adopt the change as they replaced machines.
Mr Rattenbury said the ACT government recognised the clubs industry had "keenly felt the financial impacts" of coronavirus restrictions, and that "some of those impacts are ongoing".
He listed the raft of financial support measures clubs had been offered through the crisis, including $3.3 million in emergency funding from the gambling diversification fund. Clubs had received almost $2 million in cash payments from the government under its machine surrender scheme, he said, along with other tax and fee relief.
Mr Rattenbury said the government would account for the impact on clubs as it introduced each of the changes, which were intended, in part, to reduce clubs' reliance on gaming revenue.
"Canberra has a diverse clubs sector that is important to community life," he said.
"Many of our clubs have a long history and they remain hubs for community connection. I am optimistic about the future of our clubs."
Opposition gaming spokesman Mark Parton said club members should visit their local venue - "while it was still there".
"The entire hospitality and tourism sector has been hit hard by COVID. Our clubs have been hit harder than most," he said.
"When the rest of the sector was able to open their doors and resume close to normal business, our clubs were held back by the decision to not allow gaming to recommence irrespective of the fact that NSW clubs were able to fully open.
"This exacerbated the financial pain for clubs. A number of our clubs have struggled to recover from the disaster that was 2020.
"Clubs are now facing a swag of changes to gaming regulations that are being dictated by the Greens and will come with significant cost."