Sports Direct shares plunge

Sports Direct is owned by Newcastle United Chairman Mike Ashley. Credit: PA

Shares in Sports Direct plunged to a new eight-year low as investors reacted to the farcical scenes on Friday when Newcastle United owner, Mike Ashley's company delayed its results until nearly an hour after the stock market closed.

In early trading, shares dropped by as much as 19%, before recovering to be down 9%, or 21p off at 208.8p.

Investors appeared particularly concerned with the revelation that Belgianauthorities are chasing Sports Direct for a 674 million euro (£605 million) taxbill following a recent audit.

The company said it will challenge the demand, adding it was "less thanprobable that material VAT and penalties will be due in Belgium as result of the tax audit".

Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley leaving the Sports Direct headquarters in London, as the company has revealed it is being pursued by authorities in Belgium over a 674 million euro tax bill. Credit: PA

Jon Kempster, Sports Direct's chief financial officer, also resigned - justweeks after Karen Byers, head of retail, quit, and company secretary Cameron Olsen also headed for the door.

Problems at House of Fraser are so bad, Sports Direct added it would give no financial guidance for this year and would have thought again at purchasing the department store a year ago.

Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said: "The admission that the self-inflicted problems of House of Fraser are probably 'terminal' and that itmakes it impossible to provide any earnings growth target this year wasunsettling, as was the news that brand relationships with Nike and Adidas have deteriorated again."

Sports Direct has had mixed relationships with its key suppliers, with somecomplaining in the past that Mr Ashley's stores have been too messy anddownmarket.

As a result, Mr Ashley embarked on an "elevation" programme to improve the store layout, which had some success.

But Jonathan Pritchard and John Stevenson, retail analysts at Peel Hunt, were unimpressed.

They said: "Friday's delays and general nonsense weren't 'Just Mike' ormaverick or slapstick, they were an exasperating and rude means of avoiding wide analytical questioning on the very disappointing (2019).

"The home truths about the core Sports Direct business were pretty shocking and management seems to be out of ideas.

"The elevation programme isn't currying favour with brands and the shopper has moved away from the core SD.

"This is far more important than any tabloid headlines the chief executive may garner, and probably more share price relevant than the Belgian tax claim."

Sports Direct CEO Mike Ashley leaving the Sports Direct headquarters in London, as the company has revealed it is being pursued by authorities in Belgium over a 674 million euro tax bill. Credit: PA

In its results, the company said sales across the business grew 10.2% to £3.7 billion, but excluding acquisitions, this was down 1.9% on a "currencyneutral" basis.

Its key retail business, which trades under the Sports Direct brand, saw sales rise by just 0.3% to £2.19 billion, although on a like-for-like basis, which excludes new stores, it fell 1.6%.

Underlying pretax profits - the company's preferred measure - fell 6% to £287.8 million.

But there was some hope among analysts that Mr Ashley could turn things around, pointing out that the profits from the main Sports Direct retail business is strong in a tough market.

Neil Wilson, chief market analyst at - who branded Sports Direct a "shambles" over its handling of Friday's results - said: "The situation for Sports Direct is not good, but it's too early to write off Mr Ashley.

"His mercurial style and talents have always raised eyebrows in the City.Whilst there are clearly many doubts about the elevation strategy, among others, we are in no doubt that Mr Ashley is the master of the stack 'em highapproach."

And analysts at Jefferies were even more positive, urging its clients to buyshares and calling the concerns "overdone".

"The elevation strategy is working, leading to improvement in ranges, Flannels performance is strong, the core business has been robust against a challenging backdrop and the balance sheet remains strong with net debt actually falling 5%."