British oddsmaker William Hill gets OK to operate 159 books in Nevada

Courtesy photo

A look inside a William Hill betting shop. The British company, known for offering better odds and taking bigger bets than Las Vegas books, is buying American Wagering Inc., which operates Leroy’s sports books.

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It was hard to tell whether it was Ralph Topping’s witty personality, his brogue or the quality of his team’s presentation that won over members of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

Whatever it was, it resulted in unanimous votes on four measures that led to the licensing of Great Britain’s premier bookmaking operation to acquire three Nevada companies that operate more than half of the state’s race and sports books.

Topping, CEO of William Hill Plc, said his company would operate 159 locations statewide, including 83 wagering kiosks.

William Hill becomes the first British bookmaking company to be licensed in Nevada. The company acquired American Wagering Inc., operator of the Leroy’s Horse and Sports Place franchise; Brandywine Bookmaking LLC, which has the Lucky’s sports book brand; and Sierra Development Co., which operates as Cal Neva Satellite Race and Sports in Northern Nevada.

The newly formed William Hill U.S. will have American Wagering’s Vic Salerno as its chairman, Brandywine Bookmaking’s Joe Asher as CEO and Club Cal Neva’s Jeff Siri as chief operating officer. William Hill announced in 2011 the acquisition of the three companies for $55 million.

While William Hill will operate 55 percent of the state’s race and sports books, it would only generate about 11 percent of the state’s book revenue. Race and sports books, while popular with a loyal clientele of sports bettors, generate less than 5 percent of the state’s gross gaming revenue and usually partner with resorts to run a casino’s sports wagering.

Nevada is the only state in the country with legal wagering on sporting events.

Topping said William Hill would invest about $3 million in technology at its properties and offer so-called “in-play” wagering on sporting events. Sometimes referred to as “in-running” wagering at books operated by rival Cantor Gaming, it allows gamblers to place bets on games in progress, usually with wireless devices, with odds constantly changing as the outcome unfolds.

Topping said he hopes to have William Hill’s operations running by the start of the National Football League season, but “we’re not going to cry in our onion soup if we don’t get there,” he said in an interview after the two-hour hearing.

“We not going to make false promises, but it’s a nice target to have,” he said.

Topping had told commissioners that the NFL is fun to watch, but from a betting perspective “it’s boring.”

Being licensed in Nevada “was a tough party to get into,” Topping said, but it was eased by regulators’ business-friendly attitude.

“I started filling out the application form on the day of the royal wedding (between Prince William and Kate Middleton) and didn’t finish it until well after it was over,” he said. “I never saw the wedding at all. I guess that’s why we have DVDs.”

The only tension during the hearing occurred when regulators questioned the William Hill team about Playtech Ltd., a casino software company that has developed online games for the company.

Playtech was founded in 1999 by Israeli billionaire Teddy Sagi, who still controls up to 45 percent of the company. Sagi, who has been romantically linked to supermodel Bar Rafaeli, has been questioned by gaming regulators in Gibraltar about his financial dealings and whether his company had illegally accepted wagers from American customers. He spent nine months in jail in 1996 on bribery and fraud charges.

But commissioners noted that William Hill was being licensed for land-based sports books in Nevada and not an interactive gaming license. William Hill is among the companies that have applied for an online license and regulators said when that application is reviewed, Playtech and its leading investors would be summoned to answer questions.

“My concern is not with the people in front of me,” said Commissioner John Moran Jr., but with those that are not in front of me.”

The company also was criticized for the sudden closure of its Australian website, which offered bets that were determined to be illegal. Topping said it was an oversight and the company opted to close the site when it discovered the mistake. Some experts have speculated that the site was closed as a show of good faith to Nevada regulators, since the company’s Nevada presence, over time, would be more lucrative than Australia.

William Hill’s land-based betting parlors in Great Britain produced $300 million in earnings on $1.3 billion in revenue while the online division earned $171 million on $500 in revenue last year.