If anyone can lay claim to having been in and among the events that have completely reshaped the global betting and gaming market in the four-and-a-half years since PASPA fell, then it is Joe Asher. The former CEO at William Hill US, Asher now heads up sports betting at IGT and recently joined as shareholder and advisory board member at Usability and is ready for the next challenges that will be thrown up in an expanding market.
In some senses, the decision by the US Supreme Court to bring down PASPA acted like a meteorite hitting the betting and gaming sector. In that moment, in May 2018, everything changed and everyone involved in the global industry has been living with that transformed landscape ever since.
But for Joe Asher, at the time the chief executive of what was then still called William Hill US, the decision of the country’s top judges was very far from having just landed out of nowhere.
It was a ruling that had been signaled at least six months before when he was among those who sat in on oral arguments for New Jersey’s case in the December of the year before.
“The fact that the Supreme Court had taken the case was a sign,” Asher tells iGB. “I was in the courtroom when the case was argued and it seemed obvious to everyone who was there that the Court was going to overturn PASPA.”
It meant his company had six months of preparation before the landmark decision was announced. “It was our view that NJ was going to win and that we should prepare for that eventuality,” he says.
“I had always been of the view that sports betting was going to be legal and widespread,” he says. “I just would never give a date so that I could never be wrong.”
A lifetime of preparation
If that sounds like the response of a lawyer, then that is no coincidence. Indeed, it is somewhat ironic that it would be in the courtroom where the defining moment of Asher’s career was destined to take place.
Though he grew up with gambling – his father was a gambler and he was counting cards at the age of nine – Asher’s initial intention after attending law school was a legal career.
“I got a job out of school at Skadden Arps (a ‘white shoe’ law firm) but I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to do that for the next 25 years,” he says. “Ultimately I moved to Las Vegas in 2006, then in 2007 started working with what would become Brandywine Bookmaking.”
Asher worked his way up to being CEO and president until the company was bought by William Hill in May 2011.
He carried on as the CEO of William Hill US until the sale of the business to Caesars Entertainment in September 2020, leaving the business when that deal completed in April 2021. “The buyout was the logical outcome,” says Asher. “When we did the original market access deal with Eldorado (which would subsequently complete a reverse takeover of Caesars), one of the things we thought was that some sort of deal was always a possibility.”
Now Asher fulfils the role of president of sports betting at IGT and most recently he has taken on the position of advisory board member and shareholder at regulatory compliance and advisory provider USAbility.
In his current position he is confronted with a market which has rolled forward by four and a half years. While the direction of travel was known in May 2018, the twists and turns in terms of which states followed New Jersey’s lead, how each market shaped up on the regulatory and tax front, and how nascent market leaders soon came to dominate couldn’t have been predicted with any degree of accuracy at the time.
For Asher, while the pace of change within states has not been a surprise – and the pace of adoption has been “in line” with what he thought at the time of the PASPA decision – the big surprise has been the “firmness of the embrace” of sports betting on the part of the major sports leagues.
“PASPA was their idea, after all,” he says of the law which, lest we forget, was titled the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Passed in 1992, PASPA was the result of Senate hearings in 1991 on sports betting when David Stern, the then commissioner of the National Basketball Association had testified that “the interstate ramifications of sports betting are a compelling reason for federal legislation”.
As Asher points out, the subsequent volte-face completely upended years of opposition to sports betting to such an extent that at Caesars Entertainment’s head office in Las Vegas, the NFL logo is now plastered on the side of the building.
“The NFL was anti-sports-betting for as long as I have been alive,” says Asher. “So how quickly they switched is probably a surprise.”
“To go from that – saying that their business would be irreparably harmed by sports betting – to having official sports betting partners and where any email from Caesars has the NFL logo on it; that’s a turnaround.”
The leagues had effectively boxed themselves into a corner with sports betting and in effect, Asher argues, the New Jersey case in front of the Supreme Court offered them a way out.
“They had been opposed for so long they didn’t know how to get out of this,” says Asher. “I knew there were people within the league who were in favour of sports betting; we’d had conversations with the leagues. Then once they were out of the box, yes there was money; sports betting drives engagement with the product; they had the lesson from DFS.”
The next level
Talk of DFS brings the conversation around to the shape of the current sports betting market and the dominance of FanDuel and DraftKings.
“I don’t know that I had a specific view on who was going to be number one or two. We knew (at William Hill) there would be a lot of people interested in the market and a lot of money spent.”
This, of course, is something of an understatement, but the crucial reason for all the marketing and promotional largesse is all about scale, how to get it and how to hang on to it. Asher says that for those below the top four or five operators, the “open question” is whether any of the tier 2 and tier 3 operators can gain enough scale to survive.
“Obviously, recently some people have thrown in the towel and the market continues to shakeout,” he says, mentioning the recent market exits of FuboTV and MaximBet. “It is clearly challenging when you have revenues of 1% or less, you obviously have the questions about what do you do.”
They are the type of questions that he will now be helping with in his role at USAbility which he describes as a “high-end management consultancy” which “works at a level like a McKinsey or a KPMG but with a real subject-matter expertise in gaming”.
The kind of work USAbility is involved in is the nuts and bolts of getting any given brand up and running, with the right product set and the right platform and, if it isn’t on the right one currently, planning and delivering a successful migration.
Asher knows what he is speaking of here. The whole process of moving the existing William Hill business into the new age of post-PASPA sports betting was a mammoth task involving many hands. The technical challenges were immense, such as moving to the Liberty platform, while the depth of knowledge needed around regulatory and compliance issues was as complex as anyone in the sector had dealt with before.
He notes that Usability’s CEO Avi Howard and others from his team were working with William Hill when he was there on the emigration to the Liberty platform and although he wasn’t working directly with them, when a “lengthy email” from Howard arrived in Asher’s inbox earlier this year, he didn’t have to go far to find he had the necessary bona fides.
“I spoke to someone who worked more closely with them on the Liberty platform migration and he gave them a very positive recommendation,” he adds.
What he will bring in his new role is the experience from 13 years working as an operator in the US. “I have the contact book and the grey hair,” he adds wryly. “Within the US industry there are a lot of folks who are relatively new to the industry. It is so young outside Nevada. You learn things over time.”
That time has been well-spent. Despite the recent setback in California, the US online sports betting and igaming sector will only grow from here as more states add themselves to the lengthening list of regulated jurisdictions. With his roles at IGT and now USAbility, Asher will be in and among those developments as he has been every step of the way so far.
“For better or worse I’ve spent the last 13 years of my life focusing intensely on this business,” says. “I have a lot of opinions on a lot of things, but the only thing that is worth 2 cents is what I know about this business.”