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Better Hate An Owner

Mike Ashley Just Won’t Go Away

Illustration by Jim Cooke

Welcome to Better Hate An Owner, a recurring feature in which we learn more about all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies. Today’s entry is about Newcastle owner Mike Ashley.

How much of his soul did he lose in making his money?

Assuming one can become a billionaire while retaining one’s soul, which is a problematic position on its face, Mike Ashley started a chain of sporting goods stores with a 10,000-pound loan from his parents and grew it by undercutting larger competitors, buying others as they fell into disarray because of that undercutting, and while that tactic made him a player in the business, he stayed there through what The Athletic termed “selling disposable sports gear, made by underpaid factory workers in Asia, processed by hard-pressed staff on zero-hours contracts in his giant Derbyshire warehouse and sold in big baskets in his generic retail sheds.” In short, he did business in the 21st century, eating competitors and squeezing employees, so the amount of soul he forfeited to Satan is best quantified as “the standard amount plus six percent.”

Is he a fail-child?

No, assuming he repaid his parents.

How much public financing has he sucked out of the community?

None that we know of, because in England people aren’t as stupid or as easily cowed by extortionate gasbags, and there is no real tradition of hijacking local governments for money.

The Epstein Degree: How many degrees removed from Jeffrey Epstein is he?

Unless Ashley hangs with Prince Andrew, for which there is no known evidence, 180 degrees on a standard circle.

What are his political affiliations?

Reclusive, a registered member of Amalgamated Money LLC, but not overtly political.

Unlike my colleagues, I am a fan of no team that currently exists, so I have no biases to bring here. I agonize over no team, I have no university’s athletic department to fuel my unfulfilled sports fantasies, I’ve seen enough area teams fold or move for three regular lifetimes, and I expect nothing from the experience of fandom than the Four Steps To Hell:

1. Have your parents, your friends, your location or your sick predilections dictate to you what your favorite team is.

2. Love the team while not being loved back. Care about the results even when the team itself is tanking, and fall in love with players who will be traded in six weeks.

3. Give the team money in return for which you will asked to provide more money. In this way are billionaires convinced they have value as public figures.

4. Pass the sick, recessive gene to your helpless children in a transparently misery-making attempt to bond with them.

Also, my position on all owners is that if you had to put a bounty on them, it would be two cents, as in the old 13th-century play Rebel Rabbit. Thus, I bring you Mike Ashley of Newcastle United, though not because of any specific personal offense but because he has offered, promised, threatened, and tried to sell the team more times than anyone can count and still has it. It is that most contemptible of ploys and infuriates its fans, who desperately want anyone else to own it, in a rolling thunder kind of way. He is indeed the gift that keeps on taking it back.

How bad is he? Well, in case you want more exhaustive detail, The Athletic had to put five people on one story (George Caulkin, Chris Waugh, Matt Slater, Oliver Kay, and David Ornstein) encapsulating Ashley. True, that represents .00079 percent of their staff, but that’s still more about the tonnage of the subject matter than its critical import. So, let’s do our dance.

Mostly, Mike Ashley is as reviled as he is because he knows little about the sport, undermines the people he hires who do, doesn’t spend to his full ability, and has such a low level of patience and a high level of volatility that he could own any American franchise except the Pittsburgh Steelers and nobody would know the difference. The fans hate him and have for years. Not even the networks who broadcast their games try to hide his lack of popularity anymore, the way American networks do.

And here’s where his genius lies. On at least three occasions he has promised to sell the team, to great rejoicing, only to retain the team to great cursing. The first, in 2008, came a year after he bought the team, because of the backlash over the firing of local icon Kevin Keegan as manager, but between April and December Ashley changed his position and pulled the team off the market. The same happened in 2009, and even though he had once said he wanted to sell because he was disillusioned with ownership, he later changed his tune and said in 2015 he would sell after the team it had won a trophy for him. He later bought a stake in Glasgow Rangers, whose fans also revolted when he tried to buy more of the team by using the stadium as collateral for a loan. This year, he tried to sell to a Middle East consortium only to have that collapse as the Premier League sat on approval until the Saudi owners pulled out. And because he is Mike Ashley and he peddles shattered hope, he is trying to revive this deal for a fourth go-round.

In short, Newcastle remains a large and well-supported club whose owner is the answer to the Dan Hicks-asked question, “How can I miss you when you won’t go away?” He has owned the team for 13 years, and almost all of it has been spent promising his fans that he would leave even though by any measure of evidence he remains right where he’s been—just a pelt or two above relegation and a weekly magnet for adjectives like "dour." Even by the standards of Jimmy Dolan, that’s impressive work because unlike Dolan, who has always said he will keep the Knicks and Rangers forever, Ashley’s ownership crime is that he has given them hope and then rescinded that hope on multiple occasions. It’s promising your kid the best puppy ever for 13 Christmases in a row, replacing it at the last minute each time with a balled-up rag named Barkley.

Anyone who can remain a fan of this setup is a heroin addict for emotional blackmail, and while there may be worse owners in the diaspora of money-eating human dumpsites, only one offers and retracts salvation to his supporters like Mike Ashley. It’s a different way to win hate, but credit to him for finding it, repeating it, and apparently perfecting it in such a way that no owner has dared repeat it.

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