There’s no bigger character on the UK high street than Mike Ashley. His acquisition of a significant holding of GAME shares today is the biggest story for UK games retail in years. Does it show the sector’s key retailer is simply undervalued or is this the beginning of a long-running saga of unwanted attention?
While the retail tycoon has his fingers in many pies, to date he has largely operated within the sport, leisure and apparel sector – buying significant stakes in many businesses rather than taking them over entirely – although the recent buyout of luxury lingerie brand Agent Provocateur shows that he’s willing to experiment.
His acquisition of GAME stock follows recent patterns then. The company is undoubtedly struggling, as was Agent Provocateur, with Ashley buying in at 21p a share, after a recent profit warning, a price which has been decimated just two years after the company was refloated at 200p a share. While the size of the stake is similar to that he reportedly owns in Blacks and JJB Sports.
Apart from the odd branded t-shirt, though, GAME isn’t a clothing retailer. However it’s aimed squarely at the same young, male demographic that his core business largely serves. So Ashley must feel he’s on safe territory here – or as much as you can with a weakened pound and a poor overall outlook for the retail sector.
The 44 million shares amount to a sizeable 25.75% stake in the company. At just 21p a share, the total outlay is around 9.24m, and while Newcastle fans may have long complained about signings at the club, this isn’t a huge quantity of money for anyone involved in Premier League transfers.
That a major stake in the UK’s leading game retailer can be bought for around the same money as Newcastle recently paid for a single player, Florian Lejeune – a defender from the distinctly mid-table SD Eibar in La Liga – is about as much as you need know about the state of UK games retail versus the might of the internationally-exported Premier League. Truly the brand is the League of Legends of sport.
His footballing connections, and the recent money that some UK clubs have been investing in esports must mean he’s aware of its potential. And picking up sizeable chunk of a business he understands, high-street and digital retail, while also getting a side-serving of esports, looks to be an appealing mix for UK retail’s bad boy.
Asking anonymously around a couple of stores over the weekend, staff on the floor were less than impressed with the news, no surprise given his public image and widely-reported government censures over minimum wages and working conditions.
Of course, if his interest stabilises the company and allows it to diversify further and faster into esports and events then many will be far less critical in the long run. With the share price having been heading steadily downwards since the end of 2014, any change is welcome.