LAS VEGAS – What happens to sports books when the sports stop?
William Hill U.S. furloughed 600 sports books employees after COVID-19 shut down casinos across the country, battering the tourism industry and ballooning unemployment numbers to unprecedented levels that are now eclipsing financial fallout of the recession.
Joe Asher, CEO of the British company’s North American market, has given up his salary to fund a foundation for sports book employees feeling the economic squeeze. Yet he’s hopeful the brick-and-mortar sports betting experience will return.
“This too shall pass,” he told the USA TODAY Network in an interview.
Here’s a look at that conversation with Asher, edited for length and clarity.
Why did you give up your salary?
We had to furlough over 600 people. Our business is going through tough times. The casinos are closed – Nevada, New Jersey, Iowa. I didn't feel right continuing to get a paycheck when so many of my colleagues are out of work. I decided to set up William Hill USA Foundation and donate my salary to it.
(William Hill officials declined to provide details on the donation.)
How is COVID-19 different from past national emergencies?
I've never seen anything like this. This is different. The financial crisis was really hard in Las Vegas, but you didn't have the overlay of a public health crisis on top of it. I was in New York City on Sept. 11 and knew quite a few people who died that day in the World Trade Center. This is different from that. (With coronavirus) you didn't have the initial shock of America being under attack but after a little while, you knew things were going to get back to normal for most of the country, although things would be different.
This is on a different scale, because you have both the business crisis and the public health crisis, but there's only so much you can do on the business side until the public health side gets addressed. It's difficult, but the end of the world only happens once, and this is not it. We will get through this. This too shall pass.
Will COVID-19 change sports betting?
I don't think there's any long-lasting impact from this. William Hill, a British company, has been in business 86 years and survived the bombing in World War II and everything that's happened since. We'll get through it, but it's hard.
Do you anticipate people betting online only?
Mobile as a percentage of the business has been growing every year. In Nevada, we do two-thirds of business on mobile already. Higher percentages in Iowa and New Jersey. Clearly the mobile business will come back quicker.
But people will still patronize the retail sports books, because of the social experience it brings. Now, it's going to take a little time to get back to those social experiences, but there's no doubt we will. During times of difficulty, Americans like to watch sports as a diversion. It helps us get through the tough times. The sooner we can get these games going again, even if it's front of an empty arena – which I think it's probably likely – to give people something to look at besides the doom and gloom coverage on TV, it's important.
That can't happen until the participants feel safe, and they are absolutely entitled to feel it's safe for them to play, but we need to get to that point. It has such a positive impact on people's emotions and the national psyche. Hopefully we get to it sooner rather than later and start to give people a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Ed Komenda writes about Las Vegas for the Reno Gazette Journal and USA Today Network.