William Hill's chief executive, Ralph Topping, needs a good run from the England team in the World Cup to warm up his figures after the company reported a 9 per cent fall in profits to £197.5m before one-offs yesterday.
The company has suffered from the effects of the downturn, which has led punters to bet less than normal; they have also been winning more often, at least on the football pitch, where a lack of draws in this season's Premier League helped squeeze William Hill's margins during the 2009 financial year.
Punters tend to bet on one or the other side winning matches, and bookies therefore rely on draws to make their money. However, that has started to turn around.
Mr Topping said: "While we would normally expect fluctuations in sporting results during a year, these were more extreme in 2009 than we had experienced previously.
"We were negatively impacted by the cancellation of horseracing fixtures in January and February and results going in the customers' favour at the Cheltenham Festival, offset by an exceptional Grand National result in April."
William Hill recorded a loss on football in May for the first time and was further hit at the start of the 2009-10 football season by an unusually low number of draws. However, results started to favour the company in the last three months of 2009 as the frequency of draws picked up.
William Hill is not the only bookie to suffer from the draw factor – its chief rival, Ladbrokes, reported a 32 per cent fall in earnings and others have said they have been similarly affected.
However, the football World Cup typically heralds a betting bonanza and hundreds of thousands of novice punters are expected to place bets, many for the first time. That is why England's performance will be so crucial to the betting industry. A good run will trigger a flood of money to back the team, despite its history of heroic failure, although a victory would be a financial disaster.
William Hill currently makes England joint 5-1 second favourites with Brazil, although other several other bookies are offering 11-2.
The Cheltenham Festival, which takes place next month, will also be important, with a victory for Kauto Star in the Gold Cup likely to cost bookmakers a small fortune with hefty bets already riding on the short-priced favourite.
Net revenue at William Hill grew 4 per cent to £997.9m while, after exceptionals, profits came in at £120.9m, down 59 per cent as the bookie grappled with the integration of its online business and took a £20.9m hit as a result of "ineffective hedging". The dividend, at 7.5p, is down 3 per cent.
Paul Leyland, a gaming analyst at Collins Stewart, noted that margins could be squeezed this year as the company embarks on a promotional frenzy in a bid to win new business during the World Cup. However, he added: "William Hill has done much during 2009 to strengthen its operations and balance sheet. We see the recent William Hill Online performance [Q4 and current] as demonstrating the opportunity."Reuse content