In the corner of Joe Asher’s less-than-palatial Las Vegas office sits a wood and metal contraption.
It’s not much to look at. But it holds great sentimental value to the Wilmington, Del., native who serves as the CEO of William Hill U.S.
What is it?
It’s the microphone stand that was built by Roy Shudt, the legendary Hall of Fame track announcer at the old Brandywine Raceway harness track just outside of Wilmington.
Asher, who also called races at Brandywine after Shudt retired, has fond memories of the 5/8ths mile oval. But perhaps the rig serves as a metaphor not to live in the past. In Asher’s world, things change rapidly and he can’t afford to get caught lagging behind.
His critics, and there are many, call him much worse than a dinosaur. But the reality is he was way ahead of things with his vision for sports betting across the country. He has a law degree and also street smarts from having been around his dad’s newsstand as a kid.
That whole “Timing is everything” phrase? There’s a lot of truth to it. When William Hill launched its bookmaking business in the United States in 2012, it had no idea that one day down the road sports betting would be legal in all 50 states.
Asher, who was in charge, hoped it could come to pass. But he made sure his company would be ready when and if it did.
“We were naturally excited,” he said of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act known as PASPA. “We had established our identity in Nevada and when the time came, we believed we would be ready to grow.”
Of the 13 states which currently have legalized sports betting that are operational, William Hill is in eight of them (Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware, Rhode Island, Mississippi, Iowa, Indiana and New Mexico). Colorado voters last week narrowly approved to have sports betting in that state. In Kentucky, the winner of the gubernatorial race is a proponent of sports betting and has said he will sign a bill to activate wagering in that state.
For Asher and William Hill, it’s an opportunity for additional growth.
“It’s great to see another state legalize sports betting,” he said of Colorado. “Providing a licensed and regulated alternative to the black market creates jobs and raises vital tax revenue.
“I think we’ll see more states choosing this path in the months and years ahead.”
And while growth of the industry through political means has been vital for companies like William Hill, the alliances with the major professional sports leagues has also been a huge part of the growth equation.
William Hill has deals with the NHL and NBA and is working on one with Major League Baseball. It also will be opening the first sportsbook in a North American professional sports arena when the book at Capital One Arena in downtown Washington D.C. launches sometime in 2020 once sports betting becomes operational via the D.C. Lottery Commission (It already has been approved in the District).
“Having those partnerships is good for both sides,” said Asher, whose company has individual marketing deals with the Vegas Golden Knights and New Jersey Devils as well as the Washington Capitals. “We’re really excited about D.C. and our partnership with Monumental Sports. Whether it opens the door to other arenas around the country having sportsbooks will depend on the jurisdiction and the regulations in those states.”
Asher wasn’t a big hockey fan growing up in Delaware. These days, he’s all-in with the Knights. He is a season-ticket holder. His kids are learning to skate and play and he loves going to T-Mobile Arena, where William Hill has advertising strategically placed behind the goal where the Knights are attacking in the first and third periods.
“I was very surprised how big the Knights have become,” he said. “My kids didn’t know what ice hockey was. Now they’re humongous fans.”
Asher’s not surprised however by the explosion in the growth of his industry. He just hopes the Feds stay out of it.
“The Supreme Court’s decision changed everything,” he said. “The states can decide whether or not they want it and citizens are reacting positively.
“I certainly think the attention of the United States Congress is better spent on a whole bunch of issues instead of trying to figure out a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”
Asher has spent a lot of time the last couple of years educating legislators and politicians on the sports betting business. He has met with lawmakers in their states as well as had visitors come to William Hill’s headquarters in Las Vegas.
“I think there was a lot of misinformation, a lot of disinformation about the industry,” Asher said. “You want to give the decision-makers the facts and give them accurate information.”
Sometimes, the legislators don’t want to play ball. In Nevada, William Hill was unable to maintain the use of its sports betting kiosks at the PT’s Pub locations after the legislature decided in 2013 to bar them from bars and restaurants.
“We fought that battle and we lost, so we moved on,” Asher said. “People can still use the kiosks to make deposits to their (phone betting) accounts. But with more people having phone accounts, it’s not as big a loss for us.”
Pros vs. Joe
Another battle William Hill has had is with some professional sports bettors. The company has tried to reduce its risk by limiting the amount the so-called wiseguys can bet, or, in some cases, not accept any action from some individuals.
There has been sharp criticism from those players toward William Hill in general and Asher in particular. He has heard and read the rebukes and he said it’s not a black-and-white issue.
“Any business has the right, subject to the limitations of the law,” he said of refusing to take bets from anyone it doesn’t want to. “I do think this is an issue that’s gotten way too much coverage relative to its significance. It’s no surprise, I suppose, that since this is the biggest operator in Nevada we get undue attention.
“There’s a whole myriad of issues that come into play. It’s a heavily regulated business and there are obligations under both state and federal law that we have to be sensitive to. I’m hesitant to give this more oxygen than it deserves.”
That won’t sit well with his critics. Still, Asher’s company will take big bets from certain individuals. It recently accepted several mid- to high six-figure wagers from Houston furniture dealer Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale as part of $13 million he wagered on the Astros to win this year’s World Series.
McIngvale lost. But James Adducci of Wisconsin won $1.2 million from William Hill back in April when he bet $85,000 on Tiger Woods to win the Masters and got 14-1 odds. And when Adducci wanted to bet $100,000 that Tiger would win the Grand Slam, William Hill accommodated him.
Woods did not complete the Slam and William Hill recouped a little bit of its loss.
But for Asher, business overall is good. And with the launch of sports betting in Iowa and Indiana, where William Hill has books, the early returns have been positive.
“We’ve always been very high on Iowa,” said Asher, whose company operates at Prairie Meadows racetrack near Des Moines in Altoona. “The numbers have been very strong.”
“Indiana has also been good. Now that basketball season is here, I think it’s going to be a very popular thing in Indiana to be able to make a bet on a college or an NBA game.”
Big plans for Strip
While William Hill U.S.’s growth nationwide continues, back in Nevada, where it all started, things are about to explode. With the sale of Caesars Entertainment to Eldorado going through its process, William Hill’s deal to be the sportsbook provider for Eldorado’s properties is going to make it a major player on the Las Vegas Strip.
“We’re very excited about it,” Asher said. “Our Nevada business has been great in the seven years since William Hill came to town and this is a chance to grow it some more.”
Asher said his company added an important component to help facilitate the transition. John Vidmar, who had worked for Station Casinos and MGM prior to being Eldorado’s vice president, was the target.
“We have a plan for the integration of the properties once the approval is given,” Asher said. “After the deal was announced, I called Anthony Carano up and told him we needed a guy to oversee the integration of the sportsbooks.
“There’s a lot of planning involved. John is the perfect person to handle that for us.”
While he waits for the legal process of the Caesars-Eldorado deal to wrap up, Asher focuses on the present while looking at the future. Mobile, in-game and new markets are keeping things fresh.
And if Asher ever needs a reminder not to look backward, all he needs to do is glance at the corner of his office to Roy Shudt’s microphone stand from Brandywine.