William Hill: Online Betting History
A RECORD World Cup turnover of £40million on the 1998 tournament was boosted, albeit almost insignificantly, by a contribution of half a million pounds from the company’s fledgling website, introduced at the insistence of parent company, Nomura, making William Hill the first major bookmaker to take World Cup wagers in this manner.
‘We took £500,000 on it’ remembers former CEO and Chairman, John Brown, ‘That convinced me that internet betting was here to stay.’
The realisation prompted an all-out rush to improve and speed up the company’s infant prodigy – yet it did not even warrant a mention in the same year’s flotation prospectus.
By 1999 the new technology phenomenon was dubbed ‘Sportsbook’ and by January 2000 We had set-up a sophisticated and supple system linking four locations in separate jurisdictions (odds created in Leeds, accounts held in the Isle of Man, bets taken in a call centre in the Irish Republic, with the bookmaking operation in Antigua), enabling the company to offer telephone and internet clients tax-free betting.
By January, 2001 Horse racing had by now been added to the online site, and national newspaper ads prior to the Grand National of 2000 boasted to prospective new online customers: ‘No queues on the web’ – only for brows to furrow as the site crashed on the big day.
The same thing happened on the opening day of the 2000-01 football season. In November 2000 William Hill sponsored the live internet broadcast of Celtic’s UEFA Cup match versus FC Girondins – and supplied the first ‘in-play’ betting facility ever to be made available online alongside the live feed from a match.
Now outside help was called in, specialists from IBM and Siemens helping us painstakingly implement hundreds of improvements.
John Brown pressed for a ‘very, very quick’ site, concentrating on prices. He resisted attempts to clutter the site, as he saw it, with additional content like racing form and football tables. Nor was he keen on ‘bounty deals’ with sports content providers, who demanded upfront payments for providing a link to our site and a cut of stakes placed by those thus directed.
‘All we had to do was to get a customer to visit once. If the site was good enough they’d carry on using it’ said Brown, who now acquired a laptop of his own and checked the state of the site obsessively.
The site improved rapidly, becoming fast and reliable, and business grew exponentially, demonstrating flaws in the control systems and showing up an £800,000 online fraud, much of which was eventually recovered in a court case.
Around this time we entered into a deal with CryptoLogic, a leading online casino software provider, which made us ‘the first UK bookmaker to have its own casino site’ recalls John Brown. It had a trial as a ‘play for fun’operation, then in January 2000 became a ‘play for money casino using US dollars. April 2001 saw the addition of a sterling casino facility.
For legal reasons the online casino had to be located outside the UK, at first in Antigua, then in the Netherlands Antilles.
By the end of 2001 it had around 118,000 registered customers, of whom 35,000 were active.
Figures showed that in 2001, Hill’s Sportsbook generated £274million in turnover, with a gross win of £35.5m. That represented 11% of Hill’s total turnover and showed online was attracting a younger and more international set of customers than traditionally made use of betting shops and telephone betting.
The company’s directors believed we had the most profitable online betting operation in the UK.
David Harding was Hill’s CEO when online betting took a major hit when Congress in the USA, under pressure from domestic special interests, passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. The Act effectively outlawed online betting on the great majority of sporting events. Several individual states introduced their own provisions against online gambling.
Whilst not offering sports bets to US residents due to legislation already in place, David Harding’s view was that the new legislation made it impossible for us to accept even gaming wagers from the States and it was announced in September 2006 that we would cease accepting bets from American citizens.
By 2006 it became clear that the Sportsbook internet platform was no longer as competitive as it needed to be and under David Harding the development of a new technology programme called NextGen was ‘designed to rectify these issues and deliver systems clearly superior to anything currently available to our major competitors.’
By November 2007, however, NextGen was being consigned to history and with David Harding departing, the issue fell to new CEO Ralph Topping to resolve.
Scrapping it would cost a total of £24.9m, but it was deemed to be a cost worth paying.
Eight months after Ralph Topping took charge, a deal was struck with Playtech, a leading gaming software company offering a range of online casinos, poker room s, bingo games, fixed-odds arcade games and mobile gaming.
The deal involved creating a new business, William Hill Online, and Hills acquiring certain assets, business and contracts from Playtech, including 30 gaming sites and a customer services and online marketing organisation.
Playtech had 29% of William Hill Online in return for the acquired assets – with William Hill holding call options to reacquire that 29% stake in 2013 and 2015.
The transaction was completed on December 30, 2008. By the tine 2010 figures were published online was delivering a 24% net revenue increase, with Sportsbook up 95%. In 2010 Online saw 800,000 new accounts, a 22% increase on 2009.
In February 2013, the William Hill board resolved to exercise the call option on Playtech’s 29% holding in William Hill Online, valued at £424m – Topping called the decision a ‘major milestone’ for the company.
Over the years, Hill’s internet clients have landed some impressive wins, including life-changing amounts for some customers for modest stakes.
Paul Gwilym from Cardiff decided to have a 30p flutter on a casino game early one April morning, hoping to cure his insomnia. However he was soon wide awake when he won £114,561, later saying, ‘I haven’t slept since’!
A Maltese client needed Liverpool to win to clinch a 683,738/1, 19 match football accumulator in 2011 – the Anfield side made him wait until the 87th minute before they scored the winner – earning him £585,143 for his one euro stake. Another client, who won £1,426,000 on williamhillcasino.com when betting on his lucky number 23 at roulette called to ask us whether his computer was playing up….
29 year old Newmarket stable girl Olesia Kuzmychoua, collected £238,155 from a 20p spin on the Vegas slot game in January, 2014. Amazingly, seven months later she won another six figure sum.
On Valentine’s Day, 2015, a 33 year old man from Cambridgeshire struck lucky with just his eighth ever bet by turning £1 into nearly £170,000 with a Saturday football wager. The gentleman, who wished to remain anonymous placed a £1, 10 team accumulator before heading out with his family for the day.
"My partner and I had a son five months ago and last week we set up a William Hill account and deposited £20. The intention was to place two £1 bets every so often on the football and any winnings would go into a savings account for him. We have only placed eight bets. We will certainly be giving him a large chunk towards his future but we also plan to buy a house with some of the winnings as well."