The US gambling industry finds itself in uncharted territory. All professional and collegiate sports are on hiatus. Every single commercial casino (and most tribal properties) around the country has closed, causing a wave of unemployed workers. When historians look back at these few months a decade from now, they will refer to it as a period of uncertainty.
But despite this dark cloud hovering over the industry, there are those, like William Hill CEO Joe Asher, who remain optimistic and anticipate a return to normalcy in due time. He even established the William Hill Foundation to provide financial assistance to employees and donated his entire salary to it.
In the past few months, Asher has consistently expressed his firm position that the industry will bounce back — with the divine factor being patience. In an interview with PlayUSA, he spoke on this and a number of different gaming topics.
Outlook on sports betting
“Over time, I don’t have any doubt gaming comes back to where it was. I don’t think this is a long term structural issue for the industry,” Asher said to PlayUSA. “I just think it’s going to take us a while, broadly speaking, to get back where we were just even a month ago.”
In its wake, the coronavirus pandemic has left the industry struggling to stay afloat. Some sports betting operators now allow customers to bet on things like table tennis, sumo wrestling, and esports.
At William Hill sportsbooks, there has been a shift to betting on the NFL Draft. Former Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is priced at -280 with 3.5 odds to be taken in the top three. Tagoviloa is projected to be a first-round pick and has received 16% of the total number of tickets. Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is the next highest at 7%.
When asked about all the “niche” sports and prop bets now available, Asher said they don’t move the needle from a revenue perspective, but it provides a distraction from the “doom and gloom” on television.
“Obviously, you start trying to figure out what you can come up with to let people bet on. The important thing is, we don’t make any money on this overall because the cost to offer is more than the revenue from it,” he said.
Asher said, giving customers something to wager on provides a distraction allowing people, even if briefly, to focus on something else for a change.
“I think sports betting will come back pretty strongly. When you talk about gaming, there are different aspects. I think this is going to be a tough year, at least in Las Vegas, because it’s going to be a while before you see the convention business resume and people getting on airplanes to fly out here. But I think sports betting will come back pretty quickly once the games get going again,” Asher said.
Casinos proceeding with caution
One of the burning questions industry executives, employees, and customers have been pondering is: how and when will casinos reopen to the public?
Although specifics on how and when the industry will open are not yet available, Asher said it most certainly will not be “flip the switch,” and everything is back to normal.
“Some of this will be determined by what happens with the various legislative efforts around the country. Sports will bounce back perhaps a little quicker. But right now, if you own multiple casinos in a particular market, you have to be thinking several things,” Asher said.
In his assessment, Asher said operators must determine if they should open all properties at once or should they consolidate operations in the short term. But most importantly, he said at the top of the list is how you accomplish all this safely.
“Nobody wants to be in a situation where you, your employees, or your customers, are at risk. Everybody will have to be comfortable from a safety perspective,” he said. “From the outset, I’ve been saying we have a public health crisis and a business crisis going on in the country. There is only so much you can do on the business side until you solve the public health issue. That has to be addressed first.”
It’s going to be an enormous task to ensure 649,000 gaming employees spread across 973 casinos return to work safely. It will be another to recoup the $43.5 billion in economic activity that most certainly will be lost.
“Our industry is a small portion of the economy,” Asher said. “Safety, to me, is going to drive the timing and scope of the business recovery. That continues to be paramount. You must make sure you are protecting workers who have been displaced,” he said.