Shop swap gives Mike Ashley strong hold on Rangers

RANGERS’ links with Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct company have been strengthened with the transfer of 51 staff from the Ibrox club’s retail outlets.
Mike Ashley: May rename Ibrox. Picture: GettyMike Ashley: May rename Ibrox. Picture: Getty
Mike Ashley: May rename Ibrox. Picture: Getty

In the wake of Rangers director Sandy Easdale’s revelation that Ashley has a deal which allows him the right to re-name Ibrox Stadium “at the drop of a hat”, the club confirmed the switch of their retail store employees in Glasgow and Belfast to Sports Direct.

It is understood former Rangers chief executive Charles Green granted the stadium naming rights to Ashley for a nominal £1, although the billionaire businessman has given no indication of any desire to implement them so far.

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Shortly after fronting the purchase of Rangers’ business and assets following their financial collapse two years ago, Green struck a deal with Ashley for the operation of the club’s replica kit and other merchandise sales.

Ashley also purchased three million shares in Rangers when Green floated the club on the stock market in December 2012, securing a 4.56 per cent stake.

Rangers supporters have previously expressed concern at the possible re-branding of Ibrox Stadium. There was uproar among Newcastle fans when Ashley re-named St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena three years ago and it was formally returned to its traditional title shortly afterwards. Now Easdale, who holds voting rights for over 26 per cent of shares in Rangers and whose brother James is a plc director at the club, has admitted the same scenario could unfold at Ibrox.

“Let’s clear this up, the Sports Direct Arena,” said Easdale. “Charles Green had already done a deal with Mike on that. Sports Direct haven’t taken it up as yet. Mike Ashley could call it the Sports Direct Arena tomorrow.”

Ashley is understood to be keen to increase his stake in Rangers but Scottish FA rules on dual club investment and ownership would restrict him to a holding of no more than ten per cent.

Hit by a drop in season ticket sales amid ongoing discontent among supporters at the boardroom stewardship of the club, Rangers recently announced a new share issue aimed at raising £4 million to address the significant cash flow problems they continue to experience.

“I’m pro-Mike Ashley to the extent he is probably the guy who can help us at this moment in time,” added Easdale. “His plan was to increase his shareholding but he’s come across a stumbling block with the SFA. It’s up to him now to sort that out. But if he was allowed to increase his shareholding, then who wouldn’t want a billionaire investing in their club?”

Easdale said he was not opposed to working with the former oldco Rangers director Dave King, who claims to be willing to invest £30m in the club under the right conditions, but claimed that the South Africa-based businessman had never made them an offer.

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Rangers, meanwhile, have described the change in their retail staff arrangements as a “positive move” for the club.

“The transfer of 51 staff in Rangers Retail’s Ibrox Megastore, and both stores at Glasgow Airport and Ann Street in Belfast to Sports Direct is a logical step in the operation of the retail business and will be covered under TUPE regulations,” said a club spokesperson. “All other retail functions including our online store and warehousing are currently operated by Sports Direct.

“Outsourcing the retail element of a football club’s operation is a common practice within the industry and is a positive move.”

Rangers Retail Ltd and Sports Direct were already closely linked. Dave Forsey and Barry Leach, chief executive and head of brands respectively at Sports Direct, sit on the board of Rangers Retail Ltd alongside Rangers chief executive Graham Wallace and company secretary Philip Nash.