Company Watch: William Hill
Joe Asher leaned across the desk of his Las Vegas office one afternoon last winter, cracking a gentle smile as he pointed to a Rockwell-style painting on the wall. There was his father, Larry, and his grandfather, Murray, standing near the newsstand they operated in Wilmington, Del. The family dog, Mo, rested at their feet.
Larry Asher was a gambler. He liked to bet on games and play the horses, sometimes with his young son at his side. Joe Asher knew his way around the local harness track well enough that he landed a part-time job there while still in high school. By the time he turned 18, he was the nation’s youngest track announcer.
“If you talked to anybody who knew me as a kid and told them that Joe Asher was in the bookmaking business in Las Vegas,” Asher said, “it wouldn’t surprise a person.”
Of course, the bookmaking business in which Asher works today looks little like the one that his father and grandfather knew from the taverns and corner stores of Wilmington. As CEO of William Hill U.S., he presides over the American operation of a London-based company that was the first of the large, global sportsbooks to make a play in the United States, a sports betting behemoth that last year brought in $2.2 billion in revenue and $381 million in profits around the world.
William Hill’s U.S. entry came in 2012, when it planted its flag in Nevada through the acquisition of three relatively small licensed operators who together held only 11 percent of the sports betting market. One, Brandywine Bookmaking, was owned and operated by Asher, who as part of the acquisition remained as U.S. CEO.
William Hill now accounts for 30 percent of sports betting revenue in Nevada and operates about 60 percent of the state’s sportsbook locations, making it the market leader by both measures.
“When William Hill came to Nevada, very few people actually knew what William Hill was,” Asher said. “To the extent that they did, they thought it was a winery in Northern California. Even people in the gaming industry had no idea what it was.”
Last week, William Hill became the first sportsbook to sponsor a U.S. pro team, signing on as an official partner of the uber-popular Vegas Golden Knights. With locations ranging from hotels on the Las Vegas strip to shopping center storefronts across Nevada, it has established itself as a familiar brand.
William Hill U.S.
VP, strategy and business development
VP, marketing and public relations
Launched: Founded in London in 1934; opened U.S. operation in 2012
U.S. headquarters: Las Vegas
No. of employees:About 600
What They Do: Operate branded sportsbooks in states in which sports betting is legal, as well as risk management and other sportsbook services to casinos and other gaming entities
Now, it hopes to do the same as it expands into the states that legalize and regulate sports betting.
The company was well ahead of the market when it spent $3 million to build and brand a sports bar at the Monmouth Park horse track near the Jersey Shore in 2014, anticipating that the state eventually would prevail in its decades long effort to legalize sports betting, which it did in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in May. Not only did that give William Hill the foothold that allowed it to take the first bet when New Jersey opened for business in June, it also gave it a head start on brand recognition, especially among horse players.
Like its competitors, William Hill has expanded by crafting deals with casino operators in each state that comes on line. A deal with Oceans Resorts gave it a prime location on the Atlantic City boardwalk. One with Reno-based Eldorado Resorts gave it exclusive rights to brand and manage sportsbooks for a chain that operates 26 casinos in 13 states. William Hill also has partnerships in 13 casinos in Mississippi, which thus far hasn’t authorized mobile wagering. It penetrated West Virginia and Pennsylvania through a deal with Penn National. That racetrack and casino chain’s West Virginia location is about a one hour, 20 minute drive from the major pro franchises in Washington, D.C.
William Hill made a critical hire to help build a connection to the broader sports industry in July when it landed CMO Sharon Otterman, who spent the last three years in that same role at Madison Square Garden Co. Before that, Otterman was CMO at NBCUniversal, where she developed marketing strategies for MSNBC and NBC News, and was vice president of marketing at ESPN.
William Hill will face stiff competition for consumers in each state, with MGM Resorts and daily fantasy brands FanDuel and DraftKings offering similar sports betting offerings. While it may not be as recognizable a brand going in, the company hopes that positioning itself as a global brand with a long history taking — and paying — sports bets will help it stand out.
“For us, the prime importance is getting our name and our story out there,” Otterman said. “We have a great story around the world. We’re just not as known to people in New Jersey and Mississippi and West Virginia yet. We can’t wait to introduce ourselves.”