Page last updated at 14:23 GMT, Monday, 15 September 2008 15:23 UK

Who would buy Newcastle United?

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

Mike Ashley
Mike Ashley took control of Newcastle in May 2007
Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has discovered that in today's Premier League it is not enough to be an ordinary billionaire owner, you have to be a multi-billionaire.

Mr Ashley, who made his money through his Sports Direct retail empire, went from recluse to beer-drinking "man-of-the-people" and now it seems, recluse again, in the face of Geordie fan fury at Kevin Keegan's going.

Expectations of big spending are always high in Newcastle, but not any more so than at the likes of Liverpool - where fans are also calling for funding to compete financially with the Manchester clubs and Chelsea.

Mr Ashley - who bought the club for 134m in May 2007 - had been offering to bankroll the club to the tune of 20m a year.

In his emotional statement putting the club up for sale he also said he had paid off 110m of debt and was still paying the debt.

'Going nowhere'

However the 43-year-old admitted in a club magazine article that he did not carry out due diligence on the club and its debts before his takeover, which was completed in just five days.

When he did look at the books - of a club which had net debts of 70m in 2007 - he found that it owed 27m in transfers and had taken its major sponsorship payments upfront rather than in instalments.

I knew the club would cost me money every year. I have always backed the club with money
Mike Ashley

"He bought a club that was financially going nowhere, with debts increasing as player transfers had built up, and money was owed to other clubs in lieu of those transfers," says Vinay Bedi, a soccer analysts at stockbrokers Brewin Dolphin in Newcastle.

"It was a difficult situation - it was hard to see how the club could be turned round quickly without a huge injection of cash.

"He is saying he is putting in 20m a year, but that is totally unrealistic when there is the ongoing debt."

As Mr Bedi observes: "You really have to be a multi-billionaire to buy a Premier League club these days - for the purchase, clearing the debts, and moving the club forward."

Current value

Despite accruing cash from match day revenues, commercial deals, and TV revenues, the latter dropped by 16m for Newcastle between 2003 and 2007, and turnover was also down.

St James's Park
Potential money spinner - St James's Park, home of Newcastle United

The club is now looking for its eighth manager in 10 years - a debilitating cycle of regular payoffs to the axed managers, and with every new incumbent demanding a sizeable transfer kitty to bring their own players into St James' Park.

Mr Bedi says: "I would not say Newcastle United's value is more than 250m, maybe up to 300m, depending on how the debt is positioned now".

So, who would want to buy such a club, which has made a habit of limping from crisis to crisis?

Quite a few is seems. Even loaded with debt, the club is still a potentially attractive proposition and has been linked to a number of potential suitors at home and abroad.

When you look at the opportunities to owners from merchandising, commercial opportunities, match day income and the TV money, then Newcastle United is a very attractive proposition
Alex Fynn, football business consultant

The club has been linked with Dubai International Capital, who were leading the race to buy Liverpool until they were bought by Tom Hicks and George Gillette, however the group has said that it is not looking to make a fresh bid for any club.

Members of Mr Ashley's hierarchy were reported to be in Dubai over the weekend.

Another potential buyer is said to be Chinese property billionaire Xu Rongmao - chairman of Shimao Group - who is reported to have plans to expand St James' Park and the surrounding city centre area.

A group of North-East businessmen are also said to be examining the possibility of buying Mr Ashley out.

Fan ownership?

Some fans have launched a Save Newcastle website, which "proposes a serious discussion about the issue of fan ownership of the club".

They have launched a website in the past week, which does not want to go down the path of billionaire or overseas ownership.

Fans protest
Fans protested at the weekend over Kevin Keegan's departure

Group co-ordinator Peter Williams, says: "The reason I started the website was because I believe and have believed for a long time that fan ownership would provide Newcastle United with the stability that it has so desperately lacked for so long.

"Newcastle has one of the largest fan bases in England but has consistently preformed at a level below teams with much smaller fan bases. I think this is largely due to the instability that the previous owners have brought to the club."

'Pure profit'

Meanwhile Alex Fynn, a football consultant who has worked with a number of Premier League clubs, is clear about the commercial and other attractions of Newcastle United to a potential billionaire buyer.

He says: "It is the attraction of the TV deal, with the realisation that top-level football in England is something different from other countries - England has the biggest domestic TV football deal in the world."

Nick Butt of Newcastle tangles with Craig Fagan of Hull as Michael Owen watches
Newcastle United: "Mid table team but top of table support"

Mr Fynn said the current TV deal, which includes the domestic agreements with Setanta and Sky as well as overseas deals, is worth 2.7bn.

"That is pure profit, money that goes straight to the bottom line," he says.

"The deals also mean that Premier League football is broadcast in over 200 countries worldwide, which can give you a great profile - either personally or for your company."

'Attractive proposition'

Mr Fynn says that another attraction to buyers is that regulation in England regarding the takeover of sports clubs is "much more lax" than elsewhere.

"It is much more open to come in and take over a football club. Newcastle United, despite their troubled history, will offer potential to any investor who wants to get involved, because of those reasons," he says.

"It is a middle of the table football club in terms of playing performance, but top of the table in terms of support.

"When you look at the opportunities to owners from merchandising, commercial opportunities, match-day income and the TV money, then Newcastle United is a very attractive proposition."

Meanwhile those loyal fans are hoping that some much-needed stability will be arriving in the club boardroom in the coming weeks.

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