Revealed! Mike Ashley's Newcastle United 'end-game' and why price was upped to £340m as Saudi and Amanda Staveley-backed takeover talk continues
Newcastle United appear to be in the Mike Ashley end-game with the owner 'window-dressing' ahead of a potential sale to the PIF-led Saudi consortium, according to football finance expert Kieran Maguire.
Maguire, author of 'The Price of Football', believes Newcastle fans could finally get their wish of life after Ashley with the Sports Direct tycoon spinning far more significant plates as he tackles challenging times in his now vast business empire.
"While Newcastle are a massive football club in the Premier League, Ashley has much bigger fish to fry at the moment," said Maguire of talk a sale to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, Amanda Staveley and Reuben Brothers is a possibility.
"He has Sports Direct, the on-going issues at Rangers, tax issues in Belgium, the fact he can't get anyone to audit his business and his ventures into the high street.
"Newcastle is not something on Ashley's day-to-day thinking. It is a minor nuisance for him.
"The difference now, compared to only a few years ago, is that Ashley is spinning a lot more plates now than he was before. And it's for that reason, with the moves he's made financially, that suggest he could be coming to the end of his time at Newcastle."
After 13 years of Ashley on Tyneside, few fans want to hear of the positive work done by the owner financially.
But away from the catastrophic PR calls, two relegations, bizarre and baffling appointments and a whole host of other things, Maguire thinks Ashley does at least deserve some credit for the way he has streamlined the business - and as a result, made it a relatively straight-forward club to purchase.
"What Ashley has done is tidy the club up," he said.
"When he took it over, the Halls and Freddy Shepherd left a financial mess. It was a club spending well beyond its means.
"He's overseen a tightening of the ship. He's given the club a firm financial footing for any new owner to come in and spend as they see fit. He is not willing to do that, he's made that perfectly clear.
"In a way, it looks to me, like we could be in the Ashley end-game. It's like preparing a turkey for Christmas - he's done all the hard work ahead of time, so a new owner can come in and start from a strong position, unlike the people who walked in at Aston Villa or Sunderland, for example.
"This all feels like 'window-dressing' for the sale of the football club."
Using simple maths, Ashley bought the club for around £140million, has paid off the club's debts, in the form of interest-free loans, to the tune of around £110million.
Pricing the club at £340million, Ashley stands to make £110million from the sale of United, if he gets a suitable offer and agrees to press the button.
Well, things aren't quite that simple. Maguire explains: "Should Ashley sell for £340million he stands to make a profit but it will not be as large as some fans think.
"He bought the club for around £140million, put in around £110million in interest free loans to pay off debts. With interest on those loans, over 13 years, taken into account, he would still return a small profit.
"I think he just wants as much money back for the club as he can.
"All this will take is one person to agree to the price, show the money and the club will likely change hands."
Some fan groups and plenty on social media have questioned Ashley's business model at United of late.
Half season-ticket giveaways, reduced cup ticket prices and general drops in revenue from merchandise etc calls into question whether this Ashley-conomics could see the club fall off a cliff in years to come, should he remain at the helm.
While Maguire thinks this is a policy built on sand, it will do little to have an impact on the overall financial picture at St James's Park in the short-term.
"Two thirds of the club's revenue comes from TV money. Ticket sales at Newcastle United only represents 13 per cent of revenue. So in that sense Mike Ashley has a little bit of wriggle room," said Maguire.
"But the amount received from ticket sales has dropped from £29million in 2009 to around £24million a decade later.
"What Ashley has been unable to leverage is what some call 'the prawn sandwich brigade'. The day-trippers, the football tourists.
"At Newcastle, on average, each fan spends around £460 per season on the football club. Compare that to Chelsea and it's up near £1600.
"Obviously it's London, prices are higher, but there are a lot more people coming to the ground as a one-off. They spend £60-80 on a ticket and then shop at the superstore.
"Newcastle does not have that, like a Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur or a Chelsea. It is a working-class, traditional club from a working-class city."
So why buy into a Premier League football club? What are the benefits and pitfalls of any investor putting their cash into the English top flight?
Maguire thinks we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cash that can be made from owning a club like Newcastle United.
"The investment in Manchester City has been a game-changer for the Premier League. Man City being valued at £5billion, having sold a 10% stake for £500million, is based on future growth, not what that business is worth now," he said.
"And there has been a realisation that some owners have been undervaluing their business - hence Ashley upping his £300million asking price from just a few years ago.
"Football between 2020 and 2030 is only heading one way - and the money will continue to flow, with the potential for the big clubs to cash in even more than they are now.
"There is an acceptance that there will be big winners and some big losers - for Newcastle they need to make sure they are on the right side of the line. At the moment, with this model under Ashley, Newcastle will not be.
"He seems to have come to the realisation that although he is a wealthy man, he cannot spend big. And in the Premier League - where the top teams are gaining more and more control due to their global pull, and those lower down the league, less and less so - you need to spend big in every aspect of the football club to catch up and keep pace."
And in a digital age, Ashley's analogue running of the football club just won't do, according to Maguire.
"Data is the new oil - and at the moment football clubs are not taking advantage of that," he said.
"In a world where data profiling is becoming increasingly prominent, football clubs have a unique position in that they already have a world-wide database of fan details. These are given over when you buy tickets online, sign up to newsletters, become a member, buy a season ticket, etc.
"These details are a future goldmine for clubs and can be sold on to other sources. We see that in the huge growth of Facebook and others like Instagram. They own the details and the pictures uploaded - and people give these details and images willingly, without reading the small print.
"Football clubs of the future will monetise fans' loyalty. They will send texts to fans at the game, with match sponsor offers or deals for the club shop. This is the future of football now. It is about a whole lot more than just football itself."