How A Delaware Native Got The Jump On New Jersey Sports Betting

Ex-William Hill US CEO Joe Asher reflects on third anniversary of Supreme Court ruling
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Joe Asher wanted to bring a William Hill US-branded sportsbook to Monmouth Park racetrack at the Jersey Shore, so he worked out a deal, and the book has been up and running since 2018.

But on this third anniversary of the May 14, 2018, landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the floodgates for any state to have Las Vegas-style sports betting, the timing of that deal remains remarkable.

It didn’t just happen before the Supreme Court ruling, but also before December 2017 oral arguments before the court with attorneys for New Jersey and the state’s thoroughbred horsemen facing the justices alongside legal representatives for the NFL and its four co-plaintiff sports organizations. And it happened before the Supreme Court — in a major surprise — agreed to take the case in June 2017. And before a somewhat contradictory 2-1 U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in September 2015 that sided with the leagues. And before a previous 2-1 ruling by the same court in June 2013 that produced the same result.

In fact, Asher’s plan was underway months before the leagues even sued the state in August of 2012.

So how did Asher see all this coming, more than six years in advance? After all, others who did — ex-state Sen. Ray Lesniak, Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin, and, a little later, Gov. Chris Christie — all were “Jersey guys.” But Asher was a Las Vegas businessman who, at the time the New Jersey sports betting saga caught his eye, hadn’t even yet formally closed on a sale of his Brandywine Bookmaking LLC in Las Vegas to William Hill for $16 million.

The birth of Asher’s interest in NJ’s sports gamble

Asher this week explained to NJ Online Gambling for the first time how it all came to be.

Christie spoke at an event at the University of Delaware — his alma mater and, coincidentally, Asher’s as well — in November 2011. The speech was just two weeks after New Jersey voters had overwhelmingly backed a ballot question that would allow the state’s casinos and racetracks to flout the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) by offering the same sort of sports bets that Nevada casinos do.

“I asked him a question about it, and it wasn’t a matter of selling me at all — I just wanted to get him on the public record talking about the case,” Asher said, calling Christie’s response “full-throated.”

A clip still available on YouTube features Christie recounting a story from his attending a Giants-Dolphins game three weeks earlier at MetLife Stadium that was won by the Giants, 20-17. “I was leaving the game, and this guy with an Eli Manning jersey, and he says, ‘Hey, Governor, great game, huh?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, great game. Good win,'” Christie said. “And he goes, ‘Well, it was alright.’ I said, ‘What do you mean, it’s alright?’ And he said, ‘Well, the Giants didn’t cover the [point] spread, so I blew my parlay.'”

(The story is a parallel to one former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey told me just a few weeks before this Christie speech in 2011 about why Bradley sponsored PASPA in the first place. Bradley recalled an encounter as a player for the New York Knicks in the 1960s and 1970s, with an opponent once making a seemingly meaningless basket just before the final buzzer to leave the Knicks winning by three points instead of five. A puzzled Bradley asked a couple of fans who were cheering about that last basket why they were so pleased. They replied that the opponent had covered the point spread with that last score. “I know that when I was a player, I certainly didn’t like the idea of being a roulette chip,” Bradley said.)

A ‘good answer,’ and a cold call

Christie continued by saying, “This whole idea that gambling on NFL games every Sunday, everywhere, is foolish. It’s going on everywhere — except now it’s being handled by criminals. If it’s going to happen, make the conduct legal, and make the people who participate in it comply with certain laws.”

Asher told NJ Online Gambling, “I liked that answer, and then I read an article about Dennis Drazin, who I had never met, talking about pursuing sports betting at Monmouth Park. I tracked him down with a cold call in early 2012.”

So once the Oceanport track opened that May, Asher flew in from Las Vegas to have lunch with Drazin.

“Two things became apparent right away: Dennis is very smart, and he is never going to give up,” said Asher, who added that watching one of Drazin’s horses win a race that afternoon also felt like a good omen. “So I bet on Dennis.”

Asher also had another advantage regarding PASPA. In another coincidence, the only legal case regarding that federal law occurred in Asher’s native Delaware in 2009, when a Third Circuit panel vacated a lower-court decision that would have allowed the state to offer full-scale NFL sports betting rather than the parlay-only version that Delaware officials preferred. That limited option was “grandfathered in” with PASPA because the state had previously offered NFL parlay betting.

“I was quite familiar with that case already,” Asher said.

Never a doubt, it seems

Asher’s deal with Monmouth Park was consummated in 2013, with Asher saying at the time, “One day, sports betting will be legal in New Jersey.”

The following spring, the track had itself a sports bar with all the trappings of a Las Vegas sportsbook — except for betting windows or kiosks for visitors to make legal bets.

And four years after that, Monmouth Park took the first legal bet in New Jersey — though Asher’s state of Delaware beat the Garden State to the punch by a week.

“I always thought we had a good chance, though there was no way to say we’d win for sure, because the law was shaky and unique in its structure,” said Asher, who has a law degree — as do Drazin, Lesniak, and Christie. “And it was a terrible policy.”

Now, three years after the Supreme Court ruling, the fate of both Asher and the William Hill Sportsbook at Monmouth Park are uncertain. That’s because late last month, Caesars announced it had closed on a deal to acquire William Hill for nearly $4 billion — and with that, Asher stepped down as the company’s CEO.

Caesars has indicated it will phase out the William Hill brand in the U.S. in the coming months, which could leave Caesars as the gambling name at Monmouth Park, too.

Asher’s next steps blissfully unknown

As for Asher, he told NJ Online Gambling that his short-term plan is “to lay low.”

“The kids are out of school, it’s racing season, and maybe I’ll try and pick a few winners,” said Asher, who often has talked about the fact that his father’s passion for gambling got him interested in the business side of it at a young age. “I’m happy to have a pause, and to get out of the grind.”

That’s clear from the punctuation on his LinkedIn page, which after his name reads “Unemployed!”

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