Sports book operator offers articulate argument against Senate bill


As CEO of William Hill, Joe Asher is in the odds business.

But I’m not sure he would put up a line on whether his sports book outfit will be allowed to continue to place satellite-betting kiosks in bars across the state.

The spread of those kiosks will cease if Senate Bill 416 runs to daylight at the Legislature and becomes law.

Asher offers an articulate argument against what he calls the anti-competitive bill being pushed by lobbyists for the Nevada Resort Association. And if the playing field of Nevada gaming were ever level, he might have an unbeatable argument capable of transcending even Carson City politics.

One of my favorite media misimpressions on this issue is that it’s basically a Big Guys vs. Little Guys matchup, a ’27 Yankees vs. the Bad News Bears sort of thing. William Hill is not some unsophisticated hayseed but the planet’s largest sports wagering company.

While William Hill is no David searching for stones for its sling, it’s hard to argue its underdog status against the behemoth Nevada Resort Association and the casino industry. William Hill also has plenty of legal and political tradition stacked against it. Unrestricted casino licensees have always dominated gaming policy. The restricted licensees, with their 15 machines, sit on the periphery of the big game.

So when William Hill’s kiosks and the Dotty’s-style slot parlors spread across the valley, their movements don’t go unnoticed. Hill’s corporate model relies on increasing the kiosks; Dotty’s banks on slot arcades beating out traditional taverns.

“As a matter of policy, they just can’t start going backwards solely because a handful of casino operators don’t like you and see you as a threat and want to wash out a little competition,” Asher says.

Are the casino operators afraid of a little competition?

“The whole competition argument is lost on me mainly because the whole purpose of having nonrestricted licensees and restricted licensees is because those two classifications of license are not supposed to compete,” Resort Association lobbyist Pete Ernaut of R&R Partners says. “We believe that the law should be clear, and that is that a bar is allowed to have 15 slot machines, period. This clearly is another gaming instrument over and above those 15 machines. But more importantly, it’s a sports book. It provides every single function that is found in a normal sports book. You can create an account. You can look at posted odds, you can make a bet, and you can collect money. The statute does not allow bars to have sports books, plain and simple.”

Asher counters that the kiosks generated a relatively paltry $600,000 in revenues last year. While he wants that figure to grow, he’s not threatening to put casino sports books out of business any time soon.

No, but he is attempting to change the law by osmosis instead of legislation.

South Point casino owner Michael Gaughan and others disagree. Start adding up the hits they take with the growth of Dotty’s and the Hill kiosks, and he notices a difference in the ebb and flow of play being shortstopped by the nonrestricted licensees. While it’s not putting him out of business, it costs him money and casino traffic.

For my money, William Hill’s best argument is that changing technology now easily enables sports betting ports. The company also offers approved betting via smartphone apps. And with major casino companies embracing the approach of Internet poker legalization, it will be increasingly difficult to hand-wring over the supposed scourge of seeing a sports book on every corner when you’ve got a Texas hold ’em game on every computer screen.

“How can it logically be OK as a matter of public policy to play Internet poker in the bedroom, but not make a sports bet in a bar?” Asher asks.

On its website, William Hill calls itself “The Home of Betting.”

That’s just the trouble, the Resort Association counters. It refuses to stay home.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.