Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley keeps faith in the UK high street

Julian Harris
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Newcastle United v Barnsley - Sky Bet Championship
Mike Ashley also owns Newcastle United football club (Source: Getty)

Who would bet on Britain’s beleaguered retail sector these days? Mike Ashley of course.

The Sports Direct boss has used his company to build a near-30 per cent stake in department store Debenhams, alongside the 11 per cent chunk of House of Fraser it has owned since 2014, prompting rumours that he wants to combine the struggling outfits.

Over the weekend Sports Direct triggered some typically strong headlines when news emerged that it has launched court proceedings against House of Fraser, claiming to have been frozen out of a plan to rescue the store under a new majority owner.

Sources close to the situation say Ashley is frustrated that the plan will scupper his own ambition for the business, a charge denied by Sports Direct.

Read more: Sports Direct slams 'opaque' House of Fraser owners in legal challenge

While the value of Sports Direct's investments in both outfits have shrunk since they were acquired (Debenhams' shares are down around 75 per cent in the last three years), declining valuations increased the prospect of Ashley being able to step in as an unlikely saviour.

But even if a grand department store merger is off the cards, Ashley's plans for Debenhams remain intriguing, with the controversial shopkeeper plotting a strategic partnership potentially involving more premium-level sports gear than one typically finds on the racks at Sports Direct.

Such cross-pollination holds no fear for Ashley who has also recently revealed plans to host e-sports events in stores as part of a collaboration with Game Digital, in which Sports Direct owns a large minority stake. Meanwhile its other retail investments include stakes in French Connection and US sports outfit Finish Line.

Investors in Sports Direct itself have not enjoyed a particularly fun ride in recent years. Alongside a lengthy battle over Ashley's pay packages, shares have more than halved in price since 2014 despite a modest resurgence in the last 10 months.

However, in a sector containing few attractive options, could Sports Direct prove good value at little more than £4 a pop?

Given Ashley's increasingly active approach to the wider retail environment, a buy rating for the firm looks more like a show of faith in the retail guru's portfolio of investments than a straightforward punt on the future of the UK's most successful budget sports shop.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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