William Hill unveils record haul from World Cup betting

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Britain's biggest bookie, William Hill, unveiled record takings from the World Cup yesterday as it announced a new venture to take sports betting into Spain.

The company said it won £17.5m from punters betting on the football tournament in Germany, lifting underlying first-half profits by 30 per cent to £160m. The second half has also started well, with the gross win up 13 per cent in the four weeks to 25 July.

David Harding, the chief executive, admitted that the World Cup got off to a bad start.

"The early matches were not great for us. After 24 had been played, 20 had been won by the favourites, so we were beginning to feel like a boxer against the ropes at that point," he said.

"But the latter stages of the tournament were particularly bookmaker friendly - a number of high-profile draws and penalty shootouts, which are good for the bookmaker."

William Hill has agreed to set up a joint venture with Spain's gaming group Codere to be in pole position when the country eases rules on sports betting. The country is a lucrative gambling market, one of the largest in Europe.

Mr Harding said: "It's a very real opportunity for us in the near future. If sports betting is allowed in bingo halls we could get established there very quickly." The group intends to invest about €10m (£6.8m) in each region to install betting kiosks in bingo halls, bars and adult entertainment centres.

While the US is cracking down on online gambling, several Spanish regions are preparing to regulate sports betting and license land-based sports betting shops. Catalonia, the Basque region and Madrid have all drawn up draft legislation and the first of the regions is expected to pass laws before the end of the year. Mr Harding is undeterred by the FBI's arrest of David Carruthers, the dismissed chief executive of the online sports betting company BetonSports, who has been charged with illegally taking telephone and online bets in the US under the 1961 Wire Act.

Mr Harding said: "Telephone sports betting is definitely illegal, internet sports betting is probably illegal, but poker and casino is not covered by the Wire Act." William Hill has steered clear of sports betting in the US and only offers poker and casino, less than 1 per cent of its business. Even so, Mr Harding is wary of travelling Stateside and said he would take advice from lawyers before doing so.

The group has completed £167m of its share buy-back programme and wants to increase its size to £320m to £400m as it does not plan any acquisitions.