A lifetime in gambling

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William Hill US CEO Joe Asher takes Matthew Enderby through his years in gaming and explains the moves and decisions that shaped his journey

From shooting dice at the back of a butcher’s shop as a nine-year-old to his role as William Hill US CEO today, Joe Asher has always been around gambling. He read the Daily Racing Form as a self-confessed six-year-old statistics geek and learned to count cards when he was 11.

That early introduction to gambling came from his father. After his parents divorced, the time Asher spent with his dad was often focused on which team would win what game. He ate up all that he could and loved it. This background with the industry gives him an advantage today. The CEO says he intuitively understands the business, especially from the customer’s perspective.

Asher says: “My dad was betting on sports with his bookie when I was a small child and I was a statistics geek, so I would try to tell him who to bet on. We would then watch the game together. It was great.”

To have knowledge of gaming based on a parents’ experience is not unique in itself, but Asher does not see many others with aspects as “colorful” as his. He first attempted to land himself a job in the industry when he was 14.

Asher was close to securing work as a stable hand before his age was discovered and application turned down. But he was successful at 16 when he phoned the Publicity Director at Brandywine Raceway in Wilmington and asked for a job. His career in gaming had begun.

Asher then went on to become the youngest racetrack announcer in North America. He was calling races part time when we was 17 and got his first full-time announcing job in 1985 at Harrington Raceway – just after he turned 18. His role remained the same, but his location changed when he moved to Foxboro Raceway, near Boston, on New Year’s Day 1986.

When it was time to go to university, the process behind his parents’ divorce shaped his decisions. His mother was supported by a lawyer from Legal Aid. Asher says: “My first experience with a lawyer was this guy who was willing to help out my mom for free. We didn’t have the money to pay for it.”

On top of being able to help, Asher saw working as a lawyer as a means to support himself. He says: “The ability to support myself was something I valued greatly and so the stability that a law degree would provide was very important.

“That’s why I chose to go in that direction and being guided down that path by a couple of mentors was certainly instrumental.”

After graduating in 1993, Asher worked for Justice Joseph T. Walsh for a year and then practiced law himself for eight years. From his time as an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Asher remembers a long-running case involving Rolling Stone magazine. It centered on the value of the publication.

As an attorney, he did a lot of work for one partner in the firm, who wound up being a pretty instrumental person in his development. He tutored Asher as a young lawyer as they worked on cases together. 

There are countless skills Asher developed as an attorney that he carried over to gaming, but the one he singles out is strength with details. He says: “I think I tend to be very attentive to detail and I think law is a good background for that. The ability to try and see many sides of an issue is another point. The law teaches you to look at various sides of an issue and I think that’s helpful.”

After working at the law firm, Asher made his returnto gaming by establishing Brandywine Bookmaking. He described it as a great opportunity to show what he was worth to the industry. The company was created in 2007, and remembering those founding days, Asher says: “I picked a tough time to start a business, because the economy tanked shortly after we started up. I think it was really about managing through the ups and downs and keeping everything together when things were tough.

“It’s easy when things are going great; everyone’s a genius when things are going great. But when times are tough is when you really have to show your mettle and rise to the challenge.”

Brandywine grew to employ approximately 90 people, operate 16 sportsbooks in Nevada under the Lucky’s brand and generated revenue of $7.7m for 2010.  It was the exclusive odds maker for the Delaware State Sports Lottery, which it operated in partnership with Scientific Games. The pair launched sports betting at three Delaware casinos in September 2009 after winning a competitive procurement process.  

All the hard work and dedication put into his business was recognized when William Hill came forward with an offer. Looking to expand its footprint in the US, William Hill paid $15.7m to acquire Brandywine. This agreement followed deals for American Wagering and the Cal Neva Sportsbook Division. The British operator then confirmed it had begun the process of applying for a non-restricted gaming license from the Nevada Gaming Commission, which would finalize all three deals.

Following the completion of all the deals, William Hill US was formed and Asher was named as CEO. Asher says: “My first job was the initial work of integrating the three acquisitions to really bring together the three businesses and combine them with William Hill. It was a lot of work, but very rewarding as well.”

Asher is proud of the culture developed at the company so far and described it as an entrepreneurial business set within a big company. He says: “We’re just figuring out ways to keep everyone motivated and engaged. It’s been a lot of fun.” 

A few years into the job and a huge new opportunity presented itself to Asher, William Hill US and the gaming industry. The US Supreme Court reversed its stance on PASPA. Asher was in the courtroom when the case was argued and had a good feeling on the day. 

Few are better positioned to comment on the US sports betting market than Asher. When first asked about PASPA’s journey, his attention to detail shines through and he points out PASPA was overturned - not repealed. He says it’s a mistake often made, but the Supreme Court overturned the legislation.

The decision has brought a new aspect to his role at William Hill US. He says: “It’s obviously made the business much more complex and far more complicated and challenging. It’s made it much more important in the overall context of William Hill. We’ve brought a lot of new people into the business as a result, which has been terrific.”

His legal background is becoming a running motif and once again, it puts him in pole position, this time to comment on the pace of regulation across the states. He believes there have been no surprises here; the legislative process takes time to play out in different states and some move quicker than others.

Asher says: “It’s often that the decision on whether to legalize sports betting is tied up with unrelated issues as well. In legislatures, it’s all about prioritization and a number of states have a defined legislative session when they have to pass the bills or not. I think the pace is about what you’d expect and it’s going to continue.”

As sports betting spreads across the US, it makes sense that companies are jockeying for position, trying to get their share of the now legal revenue. What is surprising is the efforts major sports leagues have gone to in an attempt to implement integrity fees. Different organizations have touted different amounts, but Asher finds the whole concept strange.

He analyzes the flawed logic: “The idea that there’s more of a threat to the integrity of the sports now, in a legal and regulated market, than there is in a black market – it just doesn’t make sense.

“Now, I think the leagues have started to move away from the concept of integrity fees and acknowledge they are just looking for a cut of the action.”

The problem with integrity fees, according to Asher, is that leagues wanted 1% of turnover and 20% of revenue in exchange for nothing.

He adds: “They didn’t even have to say thank you. That was just crazy. We’ve done a deal with the NHL who, to their credit, have never been behind this push for an integrity fee. But you know, we give them money and they give us assets and value in return. That’s the same with the Vegas Golden Knights and New Jersey Devils.”

Nascar is another organization that can see the potential behind sports wagers, where bringing sports and betting together can be mutually beneficial. Nascar plans to use sports betting to grow its audience, a concept Asher agrees with 100%.

He pointed out that not everybody who watches a sporting event bets on it. However, more or less everybody who bets on that event may watch. It’s one strategy of getting people to watch the games, either in-stadium or on TV. Asher relates it to his history with gambling. His dad would bet on games and they would drive from Delaware to Philadelphia to watch them play out. 

There is a common cause between the industry and sports leagues, but it has to be handled in a way that benefits both sides. To push for an integrity fee would mean taking money from the government that would benefit citizens and handing it to affluent organizations. Asher highlights the problem with the bigger picture of integrity fees. He says:  “If you’re taking some percentage of sports betting turnover, should we be giving that money to the sports leagues and to the wealthy private parties that own them, or should we be giving it to teachers, or police officers or fire departments?”

Analyzing the market and trends that have developed since PASPA was overturned, Asher says he was not surprised to see New Jersey overtake Nevada in monthly sports betting revenue for May. He says the sports betting culture in New Jersey is pretty strong, with some of the most storied franchises, and expects the market to be twice the size of Nevada’s once it is fully mature.

He says: “People have been betting with their bookies for generations. That’s especially true in the football season when the weather can be a little bit tougher and people spend more time inside. New Jersey was always going to be a substantially bigger marker than Nevada.”

Another change in US sports betting is the increase of in-play wagering. At William Hill US, about 30% of its Nevada business is now in-play and Asher says that is a growing figure. Highlighting a misunderstanding, he feels there is a misnomer that in-play betting is about whether the next pitch is a ball, strike, run or pass.

The influence of the law on Asher’s work in gambling is about to make another appearance. In March, at the American Gaming Association’s Sports Betting Executive Summit, he clashed with DraftKings CEO Jason Robins. The pair were on a panel and got into a lively debate on the history and legality of daily fantasy sports.

“That’s the problem with the industry, people like you,” Robins is reported to have said while pointing at Asher. Robins was surely buoyed with confidence at his brand’s early success in sports betting, but Asher remained constant in his appreciation of the situation.

Asher says: “The discussion went back to when the Attorney General in Nevada found that daily fantasy constituted sports betting under Nevada law and that continues to be my view. I think I outlined this pretty clearly. If somebody doesn’t like that, then so be it.”

DraftKings and FanDuel were some of the quickest operators out of the blocks, but Asher thinks it is still early days. William Hill US, after all, has an advantage that could level the playing field. Once the merger between Eldorado Resorts and Caesars Entertainment receives all approvals, William Hill US could be ready to benefit due to its partnership with Eldorado.

Asher says: “Under our agreement with Eldorado, we have the right to run their sportsbooks, both retail and online, in their existing properties and then in any that Eldorado acquires.

“At the time we signed our deal, which was around a year ago, we always knew they would continue to grow and always thought there was a possibility they might wind up buying all or part of Caesars. We didn’t know it was going to happen by any stretch, but it was certainly something we contemplated at the time, and that’s why they became a shareholder in our business and why we got the rights that we got.” With that forward-thinking and “colorful” history with gambling, Asher is sitting confidently at the wheel of William Hill US.

His years as a lawyer provide extra grip on the sports betting handle and the ethic that guided him towards his first job in the industry will undoubtedly benefit the company he works for today.

You are reading the Sep/Oct 2019 issue | View Contents


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