When you think about the qualities of the corporate world, generosity of spirit and action are probably not the first traits that spring to mind. However, the peculiar circumstances of the pandemic brought out the best in many companies and people, including William Hill US and its then CEO Joe Asher. He joins the Sports Betting Hall of Fame next week.
After COVID restrictions resulted in the closure of Las Vegas casinos, the company was forced to furlough hundreds of employees. It responded by establishing the William Hill USA Charitable Foundation to support colleagues at risk of hardship and Asher contributed 100% of his salary to it.
Now President of Sports Betting at IGT after leaving William Hill following its acquisition by Caesars Entertainment, Asher is reluctant to take credit for his personal contribution to looking after staff faced by difficult circumstances, instead preferring to praise other team members for their response to the “unprecedented times”.
“So many people worked in the sportsbooks inside casinos, which were now closed across the country. All those people were furloughed, they were out of work, there was just nothing for them to do. You just had no idea how long this was going to last and from a corporate standpoint, there was obviously the importance of trying to conserve resources to have the money to get through whatever the closure was going to be,” he recalled.
“It was also readily apparent to me that, given the sheer magnitude of the number of people suddenly out of work, the unemployment system was not going to be able to immediately meet the demand. The system wasn’t designed to process several hundred thousand applications in, for instance, Nevada all at once with all these people being put out of work.
“And on a personal level, I didn’t feel comfortable continuing to get paid while so many of my colleagues were being put out of work. So we started the William Hill Charitable Foundation to meet the immediate financial needs of people who were being furloughed, and I donated my salary to it.
“So many of our colleagues supported the Foundation and chose to donate, either fixed sums or a portion of their salary. Even the lady working on reception at the front desk donated what she could afford. It was very moving seeing the number of people who donated and, due to the generosity of the team, we wound up having more than enough money to meet the needs of everybody.”
As well as colleagues, Asher is quick to pay tribute to the competitors that acted to support staff who found themselves out of a job due to the unforeseen circumstances.
“There were other companies in Nevada in the gaming industry that set up similar sorts of charitable foundations, whether on their own or if they happened to hear about what we were doing and that motivated them. Whatever the reason, they stepped up and helped their employees as well, which was terrific,” he said.
This act of generosity is, of course, only one small part of the story of Asher’s stellar track record in the industry, which has resulted in his induction to the Sports Betting Hall of Fame.
The Willmington, Delaware native can trace his interest in gambling back to his early childhood and his father’s love of the racetrack and card games, so it was perhaps inevitable that a career in the industry beckoned. His first job was in the publicity department at Brandywine Raceway at the age of 16 and he became the youngest race caller in the US a year later.
College and law school followed, which eventually led to him joining Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in New York City. It was there that he did some work for a client that had an interest in the gambling industry and realised where his career path was meant to lead.
“Practising law was ok, but I didn’t really have a passion for it. I was much more interested in the gaming business,” Asher recalled. “I went to work for the client and that ultimately led to me moving to Las Vegas.”
By 2007, he was ready to branch out on his own and started working on what became Brandywine Bookmaking, a sports betting business based in Nevada that operated as Lucky’s Race & Sportsbooks. It proved a success and by 2011 it had attracted a takeover offer from William Hill, which Asher accepted and the deal closed the following year.
It was not the end of the road for Asher at the business he started, as he was asked by then William Hill CEO Ralph Topping to stay on and take charge of the company’s American operation. This was not the type of short-term arrangement that so often follows an acquisition, and Asher went on to oversee an impressive period of growth at William Hill US.
“When the deal was done, I told Ralph ’Look, I will stay for a respectful period of time and beyond that, let’s just see how it goes. I’ll stay as long as you want me or as long as I’m happy’. I had no idea at the time whether that meant one year or more, but I never envisioned it meaning nine years,” he said.
While Asher’s time with William Hill was undoubtedly a success, he did discover some cultural differences during his early days with the company. But they were less to do with the move from running a business steeped in the unique world of The Strip to working for a London-listed corporation, and more to do with the old adage of two nations divided by a common language.
“It was really enjoyable working with Ralph (Topping),” Asher enthused. “But it took a while to understand everything he was saying with the Scottish accent. There would frequently be times when he would drop references to something and then after the call, I’d have to go on to Google and try to figure out what obscure reference from the 1600s he was talking about.
“One of the other early cultural differences was that Americans tend to be much more direct in business, whereas the British are a bit more subtle in communicating things. I remember having to tell James Henderson, who subsequently became the CEO, ‘I don’t get subtlety, just be direct, just say it’.”
Asher’s eventual departure came after Caesars Entertainment acquired William Hill in a near $4 billion transaction earlier this year. It was a deal that came about in part because of the service level that Asher and his team had delivered to the eventual buyer.
“At William Hill we put a real focus on providing a really, really great service to our partners. The attitude was always ‘do right by your partners and that’ll be good for us as well’,” he explained.
“That’s really how the Caesars deal happened. We started by running one sportsbook for Eldorado Resorts in Reno and then went to running, or having the right to run, all the sport books for Caesars and ultimately, the acquisition. It all flowed from that partnership ethos.”
While sorry to reach the end of what Asher describes as his “tremendous run” at William Hill, the timing of his exit had the benefit of allowing him to spend a relaxed summer with his family in Del Mar, California – a town with the twin attractions of beaches and a racetrack. But it was to prove a brief rest, as he joined IGT as President of Sports Betting in October.
The role will keep him as closely involved with Strip casinos and their commercial and tribal counterparts across the country, as he was when working on the B2B side of the William Hill US operation. The familiar casino sportsbook industry is one that Asher believes will thrive, despite increasing competition from mobile betting operators.
“Retail sportsbooks are all about the experience and there’s still an important place for them. It’s about coming together to watch an event in a fun place to be, rather than just the transactional aspect of making the wager. The focus on customer experience is where there continues to be a big opportunity,” he explained.
“We’ve seen a lot of investments in brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, often being coupled with really nice restaurants, for instance, and great viewing displays. So I think that really the future of the sportsbook is experiential.
“There’s a beautiful new sportsbook over at Resorts World, the newest property that’s just opened in Las Vegas. At the Sahara, the sportsbook is now inside a Chickie’s & Pete’s restaurant. If you look outside Nevada to the Capital One Arena in Washington DC, where there’s that beautiful sportsbook that’s been built with really great food to go with it.
“What you’re seeing is the development of these places where yes, you can bet, but the environment you’re in is much more about a broader experience than simply getting your bet on for tonight’s game. I think that’s how we’ll see sportsbooks evolve, in Las Vegas and elsewhere across the country.”
Joe Asher will be inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame in a special ceremony at the MetLife Stadium on December 1, 2021, during the SBC Summit North America conference and trade show. This interview features in Issue 18 of SBC Leaders Magazine which is available to read HERE.