The sale of the 15.4m shares, which will reduce his total stake to 55%, is likely to fuel rumours that the Newcastle United owner is preparing to offer cash-strapped Scottish football team Rangers a £10m emergency loan.
Ashley, who founded Sports Direct in 1982, has filed documents notifying Land Registry officials he plans to add the retailer to the title deeds of Rangers’ stadium and training ground. That move is seen as a prelude to offering a loan, which would effectively give him control of Ibrox. The Rangers Supporters Trust has called in lawyers in an attempt to thwart his plans.
The share sale comes after Ashley, who receives no salary or dividends from Sports Direct, withdrew from plans to include him in a company bonus scheme.
It could fuel speculation that Ashley is looking to acquire a new strategic stake in the retail world. Last year he bought an 11% stake in House of Fraser in an attempt to block its takeover by Chinese conglomerate Sanpower.
Over the past few years Sports Direct has also taken a number of bets on retail chains including Debenhams and Tesco via complex financial instruments known as put options. In September Sports Direct took a £43m option out on Tesco shares and in November entered into another derivative agreement relating to shares in Debenhams which took its interest in the department store group to 12.7%.
Ashley said he viewed the stakes as part of a “wider conversation” with those companies. Both retailers have recently allowed Sports Direct to put outlets in some of their spare retail space.
Sports Direct declined to comment on the share sale which comes less than a year after Ashley offloaded £200m of stock, sending the retailer’s share price diving.
News of the sale, which comes before Sports Direct’s update on Christmas trading, emerged in a statement from Goldman Sachs after the market closed and is likely to be confirmed by Sports Direct on Wednesday.
In December the company said that trading since the end of October had been “in line with management’s expectations”. Ashley told analysts that Sports Direct’s performance had been hit by the warm autumn but probably less so than other UK fashion retailers.
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