William Hill makes big US play

By KIRSTY DORSEY

Published on Saturday 23 June 2012 00:00

WILLIAM Hill has won a gaming licence in Nevada in what is seen as a key move ahead of any decision by the US to lift its ban on online gambling.

Britain’s biggest bookmaker will become the first firm from these shores to operate sports betting in the US after the Nevada Gaming Commission voted unanimously in favour of a licence.

The approval paves the way for the acquisition of three US companies in a $55 million (£35m) deal announced last year.

The three firms – AWI, Brandywine and Cal Neva – operate 55 per cent of Nevada’s race and sports books. They account for about 11 per cent of the state’s sports betting market, which was worth £1.7 billion in 2010.

The licence will allow William Hill to offer sports betting on mobile devices once the acquisitions are completed on 27 June, giving the British bookmaker an edge should legal restrictions on US online gaming be lifted.

Chief executive Ralph Topping said the three businesses would hopefully be consolidated under the William Hill name in time for the National Football League (NFL) season, which begins in September.

He added that the company also intends to pursue further acquisitions, subject to regulatory approval.

“Mobile gaming is the fastest-growing part of our business, and this adds a new dimension for us,” Topping said.

The licence does not cover William Hill Online, the company’s majority-controlled joint venture which offers poker, bingo and casino-style games alongside sports betting.

That business will submit a separate application for an interactive gaming licence if and when legal restrictions on online gambling are eased in Nevada.

That hearing would lead to some tough questioning around William Hill’s relationship with its estranged joint venture partner, casino software company Playtech.

Founded in 1999 by Israeli billionaire Teddy Sagi, Playtech owns 29 per cent of William Hill Online. The two companies have been in talks since March about their future following a breakdown in relations last year.

Sagi, who owns 48 per cent of Playtech, spent nine months in jail in 1996 on bribery and fraud convictions.

Nevada regulators said on Thursday that Playtech and its leading investors would be summoned for questioning when an online licence comes up for review.

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

Sports betting is currently illegal in 46 US states, but there is speculation that restrictions could be relaxed following the announcement of a change in policy on online gambling in December by the US department of justice.

William Hill said it would provide further details on the integration of its Nevada acquisitions along with its interim results on 27 July.


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