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William Hill seeks US media partner

20th September, 18:36

William Hill is on the hunt for US broadcast deals to promote its brand as competition intensifies in the recently legalised American sports betting market.

"There's a media deal or deals to be done," Joe Asher, chief executive of William Hill US, told the Financial Times. "Multiple discussions" were under way, he added, without confirming which companies he was talking to.

William Hill was the first of the listed UK bookmakers to set up in the US in 2012 when it bought Mr Asher's Brandywine Bookmaking business in Nevada for $50m.

But it faces heavyweight rivals that boast much better brand recognition, in part thanks to deals with big media and entertainment groups. Betting groups Stars and GVC have each recently launched mobile betting apps, in respective partnership with Fox Sports and MGM.

"Propositions that are going to do well are US brands and a non-US brand is probably at a bit of a disadvantage," said Michael Mitchell, analyst at the stockbroker Davy.

Mr Asher said William Hill might not be as well known in the US but that it had built awareness in Nevada. While many people there initially mistook it for the William Hill winery in northern California, "now you tell someone you work for William Hill and they pull out the app".

Analysts are divided about the company's American strategy. Since the US legalised sports betting in May last year, most operators have focused their efforts on online betting, which is legal in six states. William Hill, however, has built a physical presence in 10 of the 13 states where sports betting is permitted.

"If you are going after the US in a capital-constrained manner, which is where Hills are today, leading with retail is clever because effectively the cost of launching . . . is less and the payback on it is quicker," Mr Mitchell said.

But Paul Leyland at Regulus Partners has questioned whether William Hill can build "a strategically relevant business" with its approach.

The expansion of William Hill US has been boosted by a partnership with casino operator Eldorado, which last September took a 20 per cent stake in return for making the company its exclusive sports betting provider.

Eldorado's $17.3bn acquisition of rival Caesars, announced in June, will give William Hill access to 34 more casinos.

William Hill has increasingly focused on its US business as it grapples with stringent regulation in the UK. In July, after the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting machines was slashed from £100 to £2, it said it would close 700 shops. The FTSE 250 company reported a £722m loss for 2018.

"Retail here is entirely different," Mr Asher said. "It's a social experience: a 10,000 square foot venue with big televisions and a bar and food options. Retail is very important both as a profit centre on its own and also as a digital acquisition channel."

William Hill's global chief executive Philip Bowcock stepped down this month to make way for the more digitally experienced Ulrik Bengtsson. Mr Asher said any change of strategy under Mr Bengtsson, who joined last year from Sweden's Betsson, was "to be determined".

Thanks to his original Nevada business, Mr Asher is one of the few US sports betting executives with a long history in the industry.

"William Hill seems well positioned but even if something did happen, it's hard to imagine Joe wouldn't be a central figure in the market," one industry adviser said.