Faces of Gaming: Joe Asher — From the newsstand and racetrack to sports-betting icon

March 9, 2024 3:09 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner
March 9, 2024 3:09 PM
  • Tom Osiecki — CDC Gaming Reports and Raving Partner

Few gaming industry executives have a background that is as authentic and was as initially disruptive as Joe Asher. It could come straight out of a Damon Runyon short story.

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Because Joe’s father, a newsstand owner in Wilmington, Delaware, was a problem gambler, Asher had a difficult start in life.  Along the way, he virtually grew up at a harness racetrack, became a racetrack publicist and announcer, and moved on to become a lawyer. He owned a sportsbook, became CEO of a major sportsbook company and president of IGT Sports Gaming, and was appointed chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars, a Washington, D.C., think tank, by President Joe Biden.

Asher, an icon in the sports-betting business, is a living example of how to make gambling street cred pay off in life.

Gambling early and living at the racetrack

“From my very earliest memories, I was going with my dad to Brandywine Raceway, Delaware Park, Dover Downs, Harrington, Liberty Bell, and Keystone. I was shooting dice in the back of a butcher shop by the time I was about nine. I learned to count cards in blackjack when I was twelve,” Asher recalled.

“I read a book by Ken Uston, a prominent card counter back in the day, and I practiced for hours at a time. My dad staked me in blackjack at Atlantic City when I was fourteen. I got a fake moustache at a costume shop in Wilmington to wear. So all of my early memories are around gambling.

“I grew up in pretty difficult circumstances: group homes, foster homes, and welfare. When I was sixteen, I got a job at Brandywine Raceway, a harness track in Wilmington, It became the place where I literally and figuratively grew up. One summer I needed a place to stay and lived in a tack room. For people who don’t know what a tack room is, it’s a dormitory-style room where most of the horse grooms live.

“Brandywine was a fascinating place and a fascinating upbringing. In hindsight, I had nothing to compare it to. I didn’t know any different.

“A key person in this era was Hap Hansen, an amazing guy. He was a Naval Academy graduate, served with distinction in World War II, and ultimately became the president of Brandywine Raceway.

“When Marv Bachrad, the publicity director at Brandywine, wanted to hire me, he had to get permission from Mr. Hansen, because I was underage. In a decision of great consequence to my life, Mr. Hansen agreed — as long as I stayed in school.

“I’m not sure I would have stayed in school otherwise. I just loved everything about the racetrack and had no interest in school. I had nothing in common with the other kids who were growing up in normal worlds.

“One of the great honors of my life was giving the eulogy for Hap Hansen in the magnificent chapel at the Naval Academy nine years ago.”

From Racetrack to Attorney

I asked Asher what prompted him to leave the racetrack lifestyle and become an attorney.

“I had an interest in the law from a young age. When my dad filed for divorce from my mom, she was represented by a legal aid attorney. So my first experience with a lawyer was, here’s this guy helping my mom for free. My foster father is still a personal injury lawyer in Wilmington.

“But it really came down to a political science professor at the University of Delaware. Jim Soles had an outsized impact on my life. He encouraged me to go to law school. He told me, ‘If you have a law degree, you know you’ll always be able to support yourself.’

“I wound up making it through college. I wasn’t the best college student. At one point, I flunked out. I got back in part-time and ultimately finished. I did well on the law school admission test and got accepted at Widener University School of Law, now called the Delaware Law School of Widener University.

Showing me his devotion to that particular part of his life, Asher enthusiastically grabbed his laptop and gave me a Zoom tour of his office in Las Vegas. He pointed out several paintings and photos of Brandywine Racetrack, a portrait of his political science professor Jim Soles from the University of Delaware magazine, a large trophy-type award that belonged to Hap Hansen and was given to him by Hansen’s family after he passed away, and a metal microphone stand that was used by famed race announcer Roy Shudt.

From 9/11 to sportsbook owner

Asher worked for the law firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom for nine years in Wilmington and eventually New York City as a corporate and commercial litigation attorney. After September 11, 2001, Asher worked on the fallout of the 9/11 terrorist attack for his client Cantor Fitzgerald.

“I was living in New York City when 9/11 happened. My primary client, Cantor Fitzgerald, was based at the top of One World Trade Center. I went from riding my bicycle around the streets of New York, going from hospital to hospital looking for survivors, to doing a lot of legal work for Cantor on behalf of the families of the 658 people who were killed that day, including a number of friends.

Asher eventually decided to find a way out of law and back into gaming.

“I didn’t want to practice law for the rest of my career. It was interesting. But I didn’t want to do it forever. So I started trying to figure out how to get back into the gaming business.

Going to work for Cantor Fitzgerald led to leaving New York and moving to Las Vegas.

“That was shortly after I got married in 2006. If you’d told my wife, Cynthia, that she’d wind up living in Las Vegas, she would have looked at you like you were crazy.

“Not long after I got to Las Vegas, I had a falling out with my boss at Cantor and left. I’d obviously spent quite a bit of time around the gambling industry and I had an interest in the sports business. I saw an opportunity for a company to outsource sportsbooks for casinos that didn’t want to run their own.”

Lucky Dog

Asher launched his sports-betting career when he founded Brandywine Bookmaking in 2007.

“Brandywine was the corporate name. Of course, it came from the racetrack that was such an important part of my life. Lucky’s was the public-facing name. We operated under Lucky’s Race & Sports Book, which seemed like a fitting name for a sportsbook and happened to be the name of my dog at the time. We actually had her face on the business plan when I was trying to raise money,” Asher recalled, showing me a copy of the business plan, complete with Lucky’s photo on the cover.

“We were running sportsbooks and our key first customer was Larry Woolf, at one time Kirk Kerkorian’s right-hand man at MGM. Including the first batch Larry got us, we built up to about seventeen sportsbooks that we were running across Nevada. Everyone thinks of Las Vegas and maybe Reno, but we were in places like Elko, Carson City, and Indian Springs.

“William Hill, at the time, was a prominent British sportsbook, publicly traded on the London Stock Exchange, that was looking to expand outside of the UK. William Hill investigated getting into the sports-betting market in Nevada and wound up buying three companies — Brandywine, AWI, which owned Leroy’s sportsbooks, and Cal Neva. They were all rebranded and that became the William Hill U.S. business in 2012.

“Ralph Topping was CEO of William Hill at the parent-company level at the time. He wanted me to be the CEO. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but I told Ralph that I’d stay as long as he wanted me and as long as I was happy. I wound up being there the next nine years.”

Asher was the CEO of William Hill US from its founding in 2012 until its sale to Caesars Entertainment in 2021.

President of IGT Sports Betting

After taking off the first summer, for the first time in his life, with his family in Del Mar, California (home of a famous racetrack that he loves to attend in the summer), Asher was contacted by Enrico Drago, chief executive officer of IGT’s PlayDigital business.

“I’d gotten to know Enrico and spent a bit of time with him. His family is the controlling shareholder of IGT through a company called De Agostini,” Asher said.

Asher took the position of president of sports betting at IGT in October 2021.

The IGT PlaySports platform is one of the most powerful technology stacks in the rapidly expanding North American sports betting market. Backed by the versatility and market readiness of the PlaySports system, IGT has helped commercial and tribal casinos, racetracks, and lotteries establish and grow their sports-betting enterprises.

In the last year, IGT PlaySports has maintained partnerships with major commercial sports-betting providers, such as FanDuel, along with Nevada casino companies Boyd Gaming and Resorts World Las Vegas and a number of tribal operators across the country. Recently, they secured additional partnerships in Puerto Rico, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. These additions have extended IGT into more than 30 jurisdictions with over 120 retail locations in the United States.

The Wilson Center

While running IGT PlaySports, Asher was appointed by President Joe Biden to chair the Board of the Woodrow Wilson International Center of Scholars, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

“Completely out of the blue comes the opportunity to chair the board of the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan foreign-policy think tank created by Congress in 1968 as the nation’s official memorial to President Wilson. The Center has around fifteen institutes focused on various parts of the world — Middle East, Russia, China, Africa, Latin America, Asia, and so forth. Incredibly bright people study some of the world’s most complicated issues and then publish their research. There’s also a fellowship program. Some very successful people have been Wilson Fellows over the years, including Madeleine Albright and Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, our national security adviser, and Tom Friedman from The New York Times.

“The board is half-set by statute, with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Education, Health and Human Services, and so forth on the board. The other half are presidential appointees. In March 2023, the president made me the chairman.

“I met Joe Biden when I was very young. His sons Beau and Hunter and I were roughly the same age and young lawyers working in Wilmington. I was friends with them and got to know their father.

“I’ve long been a Biden supporter; I was actually at the train station in Wilmington when he kicked off his first campaign for president back in 1988.”

Peak BarTop and CrystalFlex

Asher has a passion for one of the newest projects at IGT PlaySports, a bartop machine called the Peak BarTop. It allows players to toggle from traditional IGT games to sports betting using the same device and wallet. A cabinet version called the CrystalFlex does the same thing.

“IGT has the dominant share of the video poker market. I thought it would be great if you could have sports betting on those machines, so a player could be sitting at a video poker or blackjack machine and bet on sports if they wanted. I’ve been talking about this since 2010.

“At one point, Enrico Drago and Renato Ascoli showed me a prototype at G2E. I gave them a bit of feedback and said it was exactly what I’d been talking about. When I got to IGT, that was obviously one of the things I wanted to get over the line.

“It’s still early days. It’s been in the market for a few months. Early reviews are very positive.”

The sports-betting explosion

In recent interviews, Asher called sports betting the “single greatest customer-acquisition tool in the history of the gaming industry.” I asked him if he believed the casino industry is taking advantage of it.

“Some more so than others. You’re bringing people to the resort and you’re giving them a chance to engage with the brand. You make whatever money you’re going to make on sports betting and in some places, it can be significant. I remember a fellow who worked at a major Atlantic City casino told me that after sports betting became legal in New Jersey, his unrated table play was up like 26% on Sundays. It was bringing new people into the property and then they were playing at the tables.”

I asked Asher why sports betting has exploded across the country, besides the obvious answer that it has become legal and widely available in 38 states.

“The public has made clear that they want it. They’re engaged in it and obviously, the major sports leagues and the media companies have gotten behind it. People like sports. They see TV commercials with the Manning family and Jamie Foxx and now Tom Brady.

“It’s the increased engagement. If you bet a few dollars on the game, of course, you’ll watch the game. And if you’re watching it, a bet makes it a little more interesting and exciting.”

Asher relates the story of a patron at the Fashion Show Mall in Las Vegas spotting his William Hill polo shirt about seven years ago and telling him the reason he enjoys betting on games. “He said, ‘I love to come home at night, turn on the TV, and there’ll be some random game that I don’t care about. I’ll bet on the game and sit there and watch and care.’ It gives you something to root for, right?

“I believe that one day, legal sports gambling will be in all 50 states. I’m not giving you the date, so you won’t be able to say I was wrong, but it will eventually happen.”

Asher believes that while sports-betting demographics trend toward younger males, a wider swath of people is engaging in sports betting.

“It cuts across all demographics. You see a doctor in scrubs standing in line and behind him a construction worker just got off the shift and behind him are a couple of young guys with baseball hats with team logos.”

Coming Home

Each year, Asher makes an annual Labor Day weekend trip to the Elko County Fairgrounds in northeastern Nevada to use his former skills to announce a horse race. You can even watch him call a race on YouTube.

“If you type in ‘Elko Fair Joe Asher’ on YouTube, you’ll find my first race call at Elko. And every year over Labor Day weekend, I go up there with my son and I call a race at the Fair,” Asher said.

For some people, going to the races is a form of entertainment, a way to pass a few hours and bet a few horses. For Joe Asher, it’s a way to go back home.

Entries in the Faces of Gaming series:

Tom Osiecki is a casino consultant who writes an occasional column for CDC Gaming Reports called Faces of Gaming, about interesting and engaging people in the gaming industry.

Tom Osiecki is a marketing and management consultant for Raving Consulting and can be reached for consulting engagements at 775-329-7864.

If you know of a fascinating personality in the gaming industry you would like to see profiled, please send Tom Osiecki an email at tosiecki@cdcgaming.com