Joe Asher was supposed to be a relatively anonymous attorney, making a respectable if unfulfilling living. Joe Brennan Jr.’s destiny seemed to be in some sort of marketing job, working as what he calls “a media drone.” Yolanda Acuña planned to focus on being a wife and stay-at-home mother.
And Johnny Avello? Small-time gambler in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., loomed as his fate.
Instead, the foursome was inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame in a gala held at MetLife Stadium on Wednesday night as part of the Meadowlands’ SBC North America Summit. And on Thursday, the honorees formed a panel session in Secaucus to discuss how it all came to be.
Life-changing decision for Acuña
Acuña had an uncle who worked at Club Cal Neva in Reno, Nev., and she and her then-husband took his advice on moving there. But her plans to stay home didn’t last long.
“That first month, the power bill was $300 — almost as much as our rent,” Acuña quipped to the Meadowlands Expo Center audience.
So Acuña decided to look into casino jobs, and her uncle recommended the sportsbook at his club.
Acuña immediately fell in love with the chance to interact with so many characters — and job opportunities followed at the Las Vegas Hilton SuperBook and at The Mirage, as a seemingly temporary job turned into a long and fulfilling career.
Asher followed his heart
By the age of 9, Asher told the audience, he was shooting dice in a butcher room — and the Delaware native made his first trip to Atlantic City at age 14.
With a father who was so passionate about gambling, it all seemed like second nature to Asher. But after he “flunked out of college” before making good on a second chance, he attained a law degree and landed a job with a major firm.
“The job was OK, but I didn’t really have a passion for it,” Asher said.
So Asher “rolled the dice” and moved to Las Vegas 15 years ago. He believed there was room in town for another independent race and sportsbook operation that could manage those facilities for casinos. Thus, Brandywine Bookmaking — named after a now-defunct racetrack in Delaware — was born, with longtime Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro coming aboard after he had given Asher some key advice on succeeding in Sin City.
As fate would have it, the famed United Kingdom-based William Hill bookmaking entity had begun looking to make a big splash in the U.S. market right around that time. By 2011, William Hill bought Asher’s company for more than $15 million. Asher then served as CEO for William Hill’s U.S. branch until Caesars acquired the company in 2021 for $4 billion.
Another ‘early adapter’
Brennan (no relation to the author) recalls seeing those “weekly white tickets” for parlay bets at his Catholic grammar school when he was just six years old.
Two decades ago, he landed a job with a fledgling company called America Online (better known later as AOL). There was a growing sense that whatever business could exist in brick-and-mortar fashion also should be able to take place online. But sports betting, of course, was illegal in almost all forms outside of Nevada thanks to Congress’ passage of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA).
By 2008, New Jersey lawmakers — particularly state Sen. Ray Lesniak — were scrambling to find new revenue streams for Atlantic City casinos that had been torpedoed by the opening of rival casinos in Pennsylvania and New York two years earlier. Brennan joined the crusade, although he and Lesniak failed in federal court due to “a lack of standing” to protest the federal sports betting law. Then Gov. Chris Christie took office in 2010, and he ultimately supported the push to overturn PASPA and New Jersey’s pioneering legalization of online casino gambling in 2013.
Avello’s wild ride
The first 25 years of Avello’s life came with that Poughkeepsie upbringing — and with a liberal arts degree achieved in spite of “partying my brains out,” he said Thursday.
After an effort to land a job in Atlantic City’s fledgling casino industry after Resorts opened there in 1978, Avello said he decided to drive his “1963 Skylark with no AC” to Las Vegas and chase his dreams there. But dealing dice on the casino floor was “too boring,” Avello said, so he got a ticket-writing job at a sportsbook. After decades in bookmaking, including a 15-year stint at Bally’s, Avello said that he considered retirement a few years ago.
Then DraftKings executive Matt Kalish came knocking, “and by the third meeting, he had convinced me to come aboard.”
So Avello — who like Brennan and Asher, became enthralled with gambling well before the legal age to do so — is now partnered with a daily fantasy sports giant that didn’t even exist a decade ago.
Words of wisdom from honorees
As for suggestions on how to become successful in the gaming industry, Acuña said, “You need to know customer service. Be a people person.”
Said Asher: “Do what you want to do — not what other people think you should be doing.”
Asher, now president of sports betting for IGT, added that after his first year of law school, he applied to every firm in Delaware with at least five attorneys on staff.
“I got a big stack of rejection letters, but one of them said to come in for an interview,” Asher recalled. “I kept all those rejection letters for years and years. Some people expect to get ahead right away, but you have to be ready to put in the miles.”
Avello told the audience that he is “always in hire mode.”
How so? Avello said that many years ago, he found that an employee at a Radio Shack retail store impressed him with “great service” — leading Avello to offer a job right on the spot.
“And I have gotten quite a few great people that way,” he added.
Brennan said not to overthink whether you do, or don’t, already have all the experience you need.
“Just go,” he said. “Find out who the smart people are, and fake it ’til you make it. And there is one absolute truth: You can change your path in life at any given moment. I look back now and say, ‘Holy smokes — what did I do?'”
The 2019 inaugural Sports Betting Hall of Fame class featured Christie, Monmouth Park operator Dennis Drazin, and bookmaking legend Art Manteris. Lesniak followed in 2020, along with bookmakers Vic Salerno and Jay Rood and former American Gaming Association executive and current industry consultant Sara Slane.