A Saudi Arabia-led investor group is in talks to buy Newcastle United, the Premier League soccer team owned by British billionaire Mike Ashley, for about 340m pounds ($445m).
Ashley has been struggling to offload the team in recent years and it was unclear whether he would accept the offer, the person said.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s key investment vehicle, along with a group of investors led by British financier Amanda Staveley were making the offer, Dow Jones reported earlier.
A spokesman for Staveley declined to comment on a possible offer. Calls to Ashley’s spokespeople weren’t immediately returned. Representatives of Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund also didn’t immediately respond.
Ashley, the primary owner of retailer Sports Direct International Plc, is a serial buyer of ailing UK high street names from House of Fraser to Evans Cycles. He bought Newcastle in 2007 for 134m pounds and put it up for sale as early as 2008.
Fans quickly soured on Ashley following the departure of manager Kevin Keegan and while they have remained loyal to the club through periods of relegation, they have regularly criticised Ashley for spending too little on players.
Newcastle, now coached by Steve Bruce, is currently 14th in the elite 20-team Premier League, sitting seven points above the relegation zone. Newcastle in the far northeastern part of England is one of the country’s biggest cities.
Ashley was reported to have tried to sell the club at the end of 2018 by Sky, and Staveley’s financial firm PCP Capital Partners was said by the BBC to have made an offer of 300m pounds for Newcastle after about a month of talks in November 2017.
Ashley was seeking about 400m pounds at the time, according to confidential details sent to potential buyers.
The billionaire had previously tried to sell the club in the autumn of 2008 and the Financial Times reported at the time that the field narrowed to two US-based bidders from seven. There were further reports of talks with at least four groups in the summer of 2009, including interest from a group of Malaysian businessmen, according to the New Straits Times.
Selling the club to the Crown Prince may be a tricky deal to complete as Saudi Arabia remains under pressure to crack down on the theft of valuable sports rights, including those of the Premier League, and amid the uproar following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October 2018.
Prince Mohammed has repeatedly denied sanctioning the killing.
The Saudi government has denied any links to BeoutQ, a satellite-TV broadcaster and streaming service that global sports bodies have said was tapping illegally into coverage of their top events and selling it on to viewers across the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia almost a year ago dismissed a UK newspaper report that the Crown Prince was stalking Manchester United and wanted to tempt the Glazer family to cede control of the club. The diplomatic row that followed the murder of Khashoggi “put the skids” on the $4.9bn offer, the Sun reported.
The Sun said Bin Salman’s interest in United was driven by a desire to challenge crosstown rival Manchester City, which is owned by Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi’s royal family.
Other buyers of large UK soccer clubs have included Chinese companies, which own West Bromwich Albion and Southampton.
In 2018, Egyptian billionaire Nassef Sawiris and Fortress Investment Group co-founder Wes Edens agreed to buy a majority stake in Aston Villa.
Newcastle United plays in black and white stripes at St James’ Park, which seats more than 52,000 spectators. It has won the FA Cup six times and was second in the Premier League in 1996 and 1997, according to the club’s website.