News that Mike Ashley may be in discussions to broker a sale of Newcastle United have ramped up over the last few weeks with news that several potential buyers have signed non-disclosure agreements, which I’m sure means anyone interested in taking United on, gets to have an in-depth look at the club’s operations and methods whilst protecting that knowledge from third parties etc. I’m not going to pretend this information in itself means anything substantial either.
As someone who has run a fanzine for a few years, I’ll be honest I’ve been picking up snippets of information about potential buyers for quite a while now. I’ve usually taken little notice as nothing appears to get beyond the tyre-kicking point but now something feels different.
I’ll be crystal clear from the start. I don’t have any concrete information. I know a few names which for the greater good, I’ll keep to myself. With the exception of one potential interest, I don’t know even the firm identity of any of the buyers. Their identities you might not be surprised to learn are Chinese, Indian and another from the Middle East. We can all invent scenarios for ourselves where United is catapulted into the stratosphere and joins Chelsea and Man City in hoovering up the world’s best talent and we live in a world gilded by trophies and all of that schmaltz. If you do, I hope you enjoy it but in reality, we’ve no idea who the potential buyers are or what their motives are for Newcastle United FC.
I’m no trained forensic journalist (there aren’t many in football to be fair) but always believe following Ashley at United is like trying to finish three different jigsaws at the same time with the pieces all in the same box and no idea what the final pictures are meant to look like.
However, what we do know is this. Ashley does want to sell. Potential buyers signing non-disclosure agreements to secure confidentiality demonstrates there is a willing seller and interested buyers. Those two ingredients are, quite obviously, the necessary components of any sale. I would guess that Ashley has done his due diligence on the potential buyers and is confident they aren’t fantasists or phonies after cheap publicity. The very fact we don’t know the identities of the potential buyers is a positive for that reason in my opinion. I imagine Ashley has checked them out and they have the resources to make a purchase of Newcastle United.
We are also hearing chatter about price. There are unsubstantiated rumours of Ashley wanting £420m but also in having him reduced the price to c.£350m. Remember that jigsaw analogy as above.
What we do know is this: the tale Ashley has repeated since he inflicted himself upon us in 2007 is that his purchase of United was a spontaneous one, not thought through really well and motivated by the romance of owning and being involved with one of the most iconic football clubs in the UK is bogus.
I hope we all agree that is a load of absolute nonsense and as far away from the truth as it’s possible to be. Remember don’t believe a word Ashley says. That is surely a lesson we have learned over the last decade.
What we do know is Ashley was registering domain names including NUFC and buying United shares a good six months before John Hall did the dirty and sold us down the river. We also know from analysis of the Sports Direct business that the declared marketing budget is laughably small for a company of that size. Of course it wouldn’t be if Sports Direct did not have access to a global audience via the exposure provided by satellite TV, the Premier League and good ol’ Newcastle United FC. We also know that over the last ten years, the Sports Direct brand has expanded massively. That has been achieved with no significant spend on advertising. Newcastle United has been absolutely central to the expansion of the Sports Direct market presence. No other UK sports retailer has that advantage.
We also know the inability of United to expand its commercial revenue is one of the explanations for its loss of income and revenue. The retrenchment of our status and ambition is deliberate and strategic. United’s decline is the price for Sports Direct’s rise.
We also know that in his business arrangement with Rangers FC, a club with one of the largest followings in the UK and therefore traditionally huge merchandising operations, Ashley via Llambias arranged a deal which saw the vast majority of the profit margin going to Sports Direct and not to the Ibrox club.
We have no evidence this arrangement is in place through NUFC.DIRECT but we also have no explanation why Ashley would deploy a different and more generous arrangement for Newcastle United as he did at Rangers. We do know through the sale of the lease of the land at Strawberry Place that Ashley will work to his own profit despite the short, medium and longer term disadvantage to Newcastle United. You have seen that at Rangers too.
So, we now know the vital benefit Ashley gets from Newcastle United for Sports Direct in global marketing terms because the absence of a significant budget for it in his main business but its growing market share. We know pretty much for certain that Ashley’s explanation for the purchase of United and how it was done is not accurate.
Now, it comes to the sale. The next issue is believability rather than if you believe it or not. I have been told that Ashley is prepared to lower his price for United but on the proviso of longer term arrangements which would guarantee Sports Direct free advertising via Newcastle United. In journalistic parlance, I probably couldn’t stand that story up, but I’m a fanzine lad and I’m not motivated by any credibility in that area. I may be completely wrong, the source of the information may be misled or mistaken. I know he isn’t lying. But think about the stuff we do know and consider it in the context of believability and remember that jigsaw analogy from way above when you were still awake.
For me United is for sale but Ashley wants his cake and to eat it. Everything that went on over the summer with Justin Barnes, Ashley’s solicitor was designed to minimise outgoings in order to plump up the club for sale. Ashley’s PR man, Keith Bishop being at Rafa’s press conferences screams there is a rabbit off. Ashley’s choreographed SKY interview with David Craig (another Keith Bishop client) was designed to send messages to buyers. It had nothing to do with supporters in my opinion.
The next issue is the sale itself. When the deal is done there has to be a complete and clean break between the club, the new owners and Mike Ashley and his many and varied interests. Ashley cannot continue to suffocate the club under the blanket of his own business interests. Newcastle United needs to cut the Ashley tumour out completely.
I’m writing all of that completely clueless of the identity and motivation of potential buyers (bar one). We might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire and there is a big part of me personally appalled if we end up as part of a multi-billionaire’s portfolio. I’d rather the club was owned by the supporters. That’s not on the agenda however.
I could be completely wrong. Those pieces I’m putting together might belong to another jigsaw Mike Ashley has been keeping somewhere else. Who knows? I do know things are happening, whether they result in a sale or in the kind of sale we all want, I’ve no idea in honesty.
What can we do about it? What could we do to force Ashley’s hand? Do we even want to? Should we? Could we be ready to launch the mass campaign many have been grinding their teeth about for ten years? Or will we just descend into the usual divisions, petty point scoring and nonsense we have all witnessed since Ashley began sucking the joy out of Newcastle United?
Answers on a postcard …. or in the comments boxes below.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
MICHAEL MARTIN – Follow Michael on @tfMichael1892