Q&A with William Hill US CEO Joe Asher on Responsible Gambling

Q&A with William Hill US CEO Joe Asher on Responsible Gambling
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Joe Asher is the CEO of William Hill US. As a global gaming company, William Hill has sports books, both retail and online, throughout the U.S. and around the world.

An ongoing mandate for the entire gaming industry is to address the issues of disordered gambling, previously referred to as problem gambling.

CHECK OUT: Gambling.com’s Responsible Gambling Resource Center

However, for Asher, the issue has heightened relevance. Here, Asher talks candidly about the industry’s challenge in tackling the issue. The interview has been edited for flow and clarity.

His message is particularly poignant since Responsible Gaming Education Week was in mid-September.

Gambling.com (GDC): The issue of problem gambling, or disordered gambling as it’s now identifed, is personal for you. Could you describe your experience?

Joe Asher: I’ve seen it up-close and personal, for sure. My dad was a compulsive gambler and, you know, he would bet on pretty much everything he could bet on — horses and sports and dice and cards, and he couldn’t control it. There would be times when he’d go cold turkey, go to Gamblers Anonymous meetings but eventually he’d come back to it. He used to bet with his bookie in Wilmington, Delaware. ... My dad had a newsstand in Wilmington. And ultimately his gambling cost him his newsstand. So, I’ve seen up-close the harm that can be caused by people with gambling problems.

GDC: As a gambling executive, how do you approach the problem?

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JA: It’s easy to say that we want to do whatever we can to minimize the risk for problem gambling. I think everybody would agree that you don’t want — or at least all reputable operators would say — they don’t want somebody with a gambling problem to be betting with them.

The difficulty is, how do you do something about it? What do you do? That’s really where the difficulty lies. And there’s no easy answer. Certainly, one of the areas where we try to focus — (and) there are several — is training of employees. You know, we always tell employees every customer is important. (But) no customer is so important that you should be afraid to lose his or her business (if they have a gambling problem).

Part of the training is focused on explaining the issue and trying to educate the staff about signs and what to do if they encounter somebody they think may have a problem.

GDC: What are other things that William Hill has done regarding disordered gambling?

JA: We had a lawsuit (we won) for copyright infringement. We said we were going to give the settlement proceeds to charity, which we did, and one of those was a problem gambling organization based in New Jersey. And the funds were to be used for a series of public service announcement commercials that could be played on television, radio, online. And it was directed towards family members of people with a gambling problem.

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GDC: Because of your own experience with your father’s issue, family is at the front of your mind regarding responsible gambling. Could you elaborate?

JA: This just may be my own personal bias, I suppose, from my background, but I think family members, oftentimes, are the ones who can best intervene with the person who has the problem. And I think back to my dad and the times when he would quit gambling, oftentimes it would follow me telling him that he had to stop. And so, often it’s the family member who can make a difference for the person with the gambling problem.

GDC: There has been some research on the incidence of problem gambling. What are your thoughts on the scope of the problem?

JA: It’s important to remember that it impacts a very small segment of the population. Very small. There are differences of opinions, as to whether it’s 1% or 2% … I think even the most aggressive numbers probably taper off at 3% or 4%. And so, it’s small overall, as a percentage of bettors. But even that small number, obviously that means an awful lot to that person and to that person’s family. So, I don’t like it when people try to minimize it and say, “Oh well it’s only 1% or 2%.” That’s true, and so we need to understand it in context. But, you know, it really hurts those people.

GDC: Putting gambling disorder in a larger societal perspective, unfortunately there are other practices that get people into trouble and they can be overlapping — isn’t that true?

JA: Alcohol is an easy one to identify. But even the stock market for a lot of people. I know someone who was playing the stock market but really, he was gambling. And for him, the stock market was gambling, pure gambling exercise and I think he had a gambling problem but he was playing the stock market.

So clearly there are certain products which can hurt a small percentage of the people using them. Whether it could be prescription drugs, which is obviously a big issue. I mean this country has got a real opioid problem.

There are industries that, frankly, I don’t think get enough attention. But I have no problem with the attention the issue gets in the gambling world. I feel so passionately about it. I just wish (addictive behavior) would get the attention in other industries as well.

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GDC: An area where the gaming industry comes under scrutiny concerns advertising and marketing. What should the industry be doing in that area?

JA: Tone and content of advertising I think is something that needs to be carefully thought through. And it’s something that, you know, we’ve always tried to be very sensitive around. The tone, the content of advertising, the repetition of it. That’s something you really want to be careful about. I am not a fan of those commercials you used to see in the early days of daily fantasy when it was all about the big check and, you know, how much money you could win and all that kind of stuff.

GDC: It got them in a lot of trouble, too.

JA: Yeah, and justifiably so. You’ve just got to be really careful with that type of advertising and I don’t think you see that anymore, or as much anymore, and I think that’s something where your regulated gambling industry has to really be careful about.

GDC: So what kind of cautionary message should the industry being sending out?

JA: Look at the horror that the behavior can cause to the people you love, right? It’s bad enough if it causes you personal problems, financially or otherwise, but we accept the consequences of our own decisions upon ourselves. Where, I think we get sensitive is the impact of our personal decisions on the people we love. On the wife, on the children, on the husband.

GDC: In this age of online gambling, gaming companies are able to harvest more information and gain more insight into customer behaviors than ever before. How does that come into play regarding a company hewing to a commitment to responsible gambling?

JA: I couldn’t agree more … whether it’s retail or an online thing, you sort of have this issue where you know what the customer is doing when he’s betting with you, in your building or he’s on your app. You don’t know what he’s doing when he’s betting with somebody else.

And so we’re operating from the perspective where you don’t have the full scope of the customer’s behavior. But by all means, you should use the knowledge that you have to try to understand what’s happening and what’s going on. … We funded a project to do some real research into problem gambling and identifying the behaviors so you would know what to look for.

GDC: What are you looking for?

JA: Clearly a spike, for instance, in the number of times somebody’s betting; the amounts that he’s betting; people chasing is another one. You know, those are all things you want to look at. And one of the other aspects that is really hard for me is around credit. In my ideal world, everybody would bet in cash. And the money would be posted up front. And there would be no availability of credit. … But, of course, that just doesn’t match reality because we’re moving faster and faster to a cashless society. And while we, as a company, don’t accept credit, people can use credit cards for … online transactions. (There’s) the need to really focus around problem gambling in the credit card world. In the electronic payment world … we’ve lost that cooling off period … so I’d like to really see some study of the issues around electronic payments.

GDC: What are some practical things that people can lean on to avoid falling into problem gambling?

JA: Set the deposit limits, you can set various limits online to control your behavior. (You can) control your own behavior online. Much, much easier to do. I can’t think of somebody walking into a casino and telling the blackjack dealer, “Make sure I’m out of here after two hours.”

Online you have the ability to limit the time you play, the amount of money you deposit, which is probably one of the key things.

GDC: What do you want to see happen in a proactive way either from your own company’s point of view or from your industry’s point of view to best deal with disordered gambling?

JA: As an industry we need to continue to try to do as much as we can to identify the issue and figure out how to minimize the harm that is caused by the use of our product.

And I think clearly it’s the moral thing to do. But it’s also good business. It’s important from a business perspective because the harm that can be caused from even the perception that the industry isn’t taking the issue seriously can be substantial.

The fact that sports betting is now legal in many states and that it’s regulated provides an opportunity to try to address the issue that frankly doesn’t exist in the black market. I mean, by and large the illegal bookie just wants to separate his customer from his cash.

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