The pulling down of the Sports Direct signs which adorned just about every spare inch of St. James’ Park was the seminal moment of the Staveley takeover. It was more than just pulling down some signs. It represented the end of the Ashley era. The end of St. James’ Park being used as a glorified advertising board to promote Mike Ashley’s high street brands. The end of exploitation.
Whilst this was all met with glee by ecstatic NUFC supporters, Mike Ashley was apoplectic. He immediately launched a legal suit against Staveley alleging that, among other things, he had an agreement that the advertising would remain up until the end of this season.
Staveley is vigorously contesting the suit (good luck Amanda). Documents she’s submitted to the High Court have revealed that no advertising fees have been paid by Sports Direct (& Flannels) for the seasons 19/20 to 21/22. It’s also alleged that for the two seasons prior to that (17/18 and 18/19), Sports Direct paid only £1m per year.
Putting aside the collapse in on-field performance, nothing demonstrates how damaging Ashley was as an owner than this revelation about advertising fees. It encapsulates exactly why NUFC never had a chance of competing when he was owner. Let me explain why.
In the long run, the most successful football clubs are those that can generate the most income. It stands to reason. The more money a club has, the more it can spend on better players and higher wages. There’s some honourable exceptions but essentially this has been the case since the inception of professional football.
A club can generate income in three ways – Broadcasting (TV deals etc), Match Day (Season Tickets etc) and Commercial (Sponsorship etc). There’s also a fourth way where an owner supplements the income generated by the club with their own personal wealth (subject to financial fair play (FFP) rules).
To enable a club to compete, they need to grow their income as much as possible relative to other clubs. How do they do this? It isn’t easy. Options for growth are limited.
Broadcasting income is centrally negotiated by the Premier League and is largely fixed (depending on league placing and TV coverage). Match day income can only be boosted by enlarging a stadium capacity or increasing ticket prices.
So that leaves growing Commercial income or supplementing with owner financing. We know that over the last ten years, Ashley steadfastly refused to put a penny of his own considerable wealth into NUFC making him almost unique amongst owners in the top two divisions.
So the one remaining revenue stream that could be used to grow NUFC and give them a fighting chance to compete against other PL sides was Commercial income (comprising sponsorship, advertising and merchandising).
With Ashley’s business success and connections, you’d expect this to be a rich seam for the club to exploit. The details of the Sports Direct sponsorship deal reveal that not only did Ashley fail to do this, he actively did everything he could to prevent it. His priority was not Newcastle, it was solely his high street stores. We all suspected this but the High Court documents confirm it.
At a time when wealthy PL owners have been trying desperately to by-pass Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules by securing vastly over-inflated sponsorship deals (with owner linked businesses) for their clubs, Ashley was doing exactly the opposite. He was using the worldwide reach of the PL and NUFC to market his brands for next to nothing. Strangely enough, this didn’t raise an eyebrow with the Premier League.
It’s difficult to estimate how much Commercial revenue was lost as a result of NUFC’s failure to receive market value for the Sports Direct advertising. What we can do is compare NUFC’s commercial income against other clubs.
We can see from the graph below how much the gap has grown since Ashley bought the club relative to other clubs. An illustrative indictment on his catastrophic tenure.
Whilst that graphic shows Commercial revenue against the “Big Six”, it’s probably more insightful to compare against another similar size club (Everton) with an owner (Moshiri) who whilst fabulously wealthy is not quite as wealthy as Ashley. He bankrolled a huge (although not altogether successful) spending spree for his managers.
We’ve seen from the graphs above that Everton have had £348m of owner funding over the last ten years. The vast majority of this has come from Moshiri (and connected partners). But FFP was designed to put limits (however poorly enforced) on that sort of owner funding. So to by-pass FFP rules, he has had to find more innovative ways of getting his wealth into Everton.
How has he done this? Essentially by cheating. Or more tactfully, by artificially inflating their Commercial income by signing dubious deals with owner connected companies (USM Holdings). This led to Everton increasing their Commercial income from £41m to £76m. To illustrate, let’s look at just one way they did this.
USM Holdings paid £30m for the first option to name Everton’s new stadium. So to be clear, this isn’t a payment for the naming rights. It’s just the first option for USM to buy them in the future! Thirty million quid!! Just to recap, when Ashley re-named St. James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena, he never paid the club a farthing. That single payment from USM was higher than all of Newcastle’s Commercial Income in 19/20.
It’s exactly the sort of dubious sponsorship that the rest of the Premier League are trying desperately to prevent the new Saudi owners from doing at Newcastle. With Mike Ashley, they had no such worries.
Whilst Everton’s owners (like many others) were pumping in eye-watering amounts of cash to their club in an effort to compete with the “Big Six”, Ashley was deliberately starving NUFC of funding. We can question the fairness of Everton’s method of getting money into their club but they’re hardly unique. What is unique is an owner of a PL football club seemingly deliberately trying to handicap that club’s ability to compete.
We said at the start that NUFC could never compete whilst Ashley was owner. Not only did he appoint, by and large, awful managers but he then denied funding to the club which those managers desperately needed. This High Court revelation suggests that it wasn’t incompetence. It was the outcome of a deliberate policy dutiful enforced by Charnley & Co over a 14-year period.
The club never stood a chance.
ANDY TROBE – @TFAT1892