The Story Behind Sports Direct Founder Mike Ashley


Mike Ashley isn’t necessarily a household name. But he is well-known to many sports fanatics and to those in the world of international business. But he’s also known to be very reclusive. He’s made a very public market in the world of sports—a big feat for someone who generally stays out of the spotlight. He also avoids the trappings of a businessman, choosing a tracksuit over a business suit. Oh, and he tends to carry a plastic bag instead of a briefcase.

But how did this quiet, private man found sports retailer Sports Direct and become one of the wealthiest people in Britain? Let’s look at the unusual journey that helped Mike Ashley become the legend he is today.

Key Takeaways

  • Billionaire Mike Ashley is one of the U.K.’s wealthiest individuals and founder of Sports Direct.
  • Ashley came from a modest upbringing, launching his business empire with a £10,000 loan from his family.
  • His business acumen has proven to be lucrative despite being labeled both reclusive and eccentric.

Humble Beginnings

Mike Ashley is the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Sports Direct, the largest sporting goods chain in the United Kingdom by revenue. The company operates a number of different brands that offer products along a range of spectrums including sports, lifestyle, and fitness.

Ashley’s net worth was listed at $3 billion by Forbes as of June 2, 2020, which placed him in 836th place among the world’s richest people. Although he may now be a big name in the sports and business world, he did come from humble beginnings.

Ashley started as a squash player after leaving school at the age of 16. An injury shattered his sports career, which led him to become a squash coach. In 1982, Ashley turned to retail. With help from his family—a £10,000 loan—he opened up his first sports and ski shop. His store was a success and he was able to expand his operations. By 1990, he opened 100 stores across the United Kingdom, rebranding his chain as Sports Soccer.

Acquisitions and Sports Direct

Ashley began acquiring brands in the late 1990s. He bought Donnay in 1996—the first major brand he purchased—Lillywhites in 2002, then bought Lonsdale. These three companies were easy pickings for Ashley because they were all having financial difficulty.

In 2004, Ashley went on another buying spree, purchasing Carlton, Dunlop, Slazenger, and Karrimor. This led to a period of rapid acquisitions that took place between 2005 and 2012. Companies acquired in this period were Campri, LA Gear, No Fear, Title, Voodoo Dolls, Kangol, Everlast Worldwide, Field & Trek, Sport 2000, USC, Cruise, Van Mildert, Firetrap, No Fear, Hot Tuna, Eybl, Debenhams, and HoF.

Valued by Merrill Lynch at £2.5 billion, Sports Direct International PLC went public through an initial public offering (IPO) and began trading on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in February 2007. The company changed its name to Frasers Group PLC in December 2019 and trades under the ticker symbol FRAS. The company operates more than 450 locations and employs almost 19,000 people.

Sports Direct International PLC changed its name to Frasers Group PLC in 2019, trading under the ticker symbol FRAS on the London Stock Exchange.

Team Ownership

Ashley is probably most known as the owner of Newcastle United, a professional soccer team that was founded in 1892. The team is based in Newcastle upon Tyne and plays in the Premier League. He paid approximately £135 million to purchase the team in 2007. However, his status as a rich team owner did not change him. He became known for sitting in the stands with fans of the club. The team won the championship in 2017.

Newcastle United wasn’t the only team under Ashley’s belt. He bought a stake in the Rangers—a Scottish football team based in Glasgow—in 2014. The team also has a lengthy history dating back to 1882 when it was founded. He sold his shares in the club, completely relinquishing any stake in the team in 2017.

A Drunken Offer and Whistleblower

Ashley turned on industry competitors by becoming a whistleblower in 2000. He agreed to give evidence to the Office of Fair Trading that many sports gear sellers colluded in price-fixing on sports jerseys and shirts.

He also had a run-in with the courts when an associate filed a lawsuit against him. An investment banker named Jeffrey Blue took Ashley to court, claiming Ashley promised to give him £14 million if he could increase the share price of the company that owns the Newcastle club.

Details revealed in the trial showed that Ashley and Blue were drinking heavily at a pub and that the offer was not meant to be taken seriously. The court agreed and dismissed the case. Ashley didn’t pay Blue anything.

Personal Life and Eccentricity

Ashley split from his wife Linda Jerlmyr in 2003. The two married in 1988 and had three children. Their divorce settlement was one of the largest ever in England’s history, requiring Ashley to give up a 16-bedroom home and additional assets valued at £50 million.

Ashley has been described as an unusual businessman, conducting business in strange places, in unorthodox ways. That, in addition to his impulse to be reclusive, has given him a kind of legendary status. Rumors swirl about his net worth and stakes in other businesses.

The Bottom Line

Whatever the future brings for Sports Direct, Newcastle United, and Mike Ashley himself, it is likely there will be more mystery, eccentricity, and notoriety. The public keeps up with Ashley’s adventures, even though he does not seek headlines. His journey from a squash player to a world-class entrepreneur has made him a bit of a folk hero. In spite of his unusual personality—or perhaps because of it—he has managed to become extremely wealthy and successful.

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