Kylian Mbappé. Erling Haaland. Raheem Sterling. Those are just some of the superstar names who have been linked with transfers to Newcastle United following Saudi Arabia’s takeover of the sleepy northern club through its Public Investment Fund (PIF). The story has rocked football and is a watershed moment for the Premier League.
None of the aforementioned players will end up at the Toon any time soon, but the fact fans and media are even daring to dream shows the unimaginable wealth of the incoming Saudis. The Magpies have superseded PSG as world football’s richest operation, with their new owners valued somewhere around the $440 billion mark (for context, Man City’s Sheikh Mansour is the next wealthiest in England, thought to be worth $42 billion). In terms of size, Newcastle has a passionate local fanbase and undoubted potential but has been comfortably middling for much of recent history. It's a bit like the New York Knicks, albeit without the same geographical luster.
Some fans are delirious at the news — former owner and widely despised pariah Mike “fat man” Ashley has been ousted by the nearest thing to an IRL King Midas — while for others it’s more like a living nightmare; sportswashing by a brutal regime with an atrocious human rights record. You could write a tome the size of St James’ Park debating the ethics of the whole thing.
There’s been talk about what will happen to the players, management, and even fans once the PIF gets its feet under the table at Newcastle. But what about the commercial partners, namely their kit supplier? Could a powerhouse PSG x Jordan Brand style tie-up be in the offing sometime soon? If you’re a newcomer to all of this, remember football clubs have the latitude to negotiate their own deals, unlike the NBA, where the league does the negotiation on its teams’ behalf.
You probably don't know Castore, Newcastle’s current kit supplier, which signed a six-year deal with the club worth a relatively modest $7-million-a-year this summer. Originally marketed as a “luxury sports brand,” the company was founded by sporting brothers Tom and Phil Beahon in 2015. Financially backed by an unnamed wealthy British family (speculation ranges from the Reuben brothers to Mohsin and Zuber Issa to, nonsensically, Ashley himself), they have cut a niche in the market as a more expensive, supposedly more premium version of Under Armor. (Personally, I think the product is naff, and there's a lot to be said about the whole luxury schtick.)
Castore's big break came when Andy Murray signed an endorsement deal in 2017 (despite being well past his best, the tennis legend remains a blue-chip name for audiences in Europe and especially Britain). Since then, it has expanded into realms including cricket, rugby union, and, of course, football. Scottish champions Rangers were its first signee, followed by Wolves, and then most recently Newcastle. Response to their gear from fans has been mixed so far, with some citing poor quality and lack of variety in the inventory.
When signing on at Newcastle in July, the Beahon’s wouldn’t have envisaged that, in four months' time, the Mapgies would become the biggest story in global sport. Have they lucked out, or will they soon be replaced by a big fish?
PIF’s interest in Newcastle stretches back well before Castore came aboard as a technical partner. With that in mind, it’s not a stretch to think that Ashley and the previous regime would have inserted some kind of get-out clause allowing any new owner to buy out the existing deal and bring in a partner of their choosing. After all, the kit supplier is of paramount importance for any club, both in terms of monies and marketing. It wouldn’t be the first time a team has a partnership of this sort, either — Roma and Nike mutually terminated their 10-year contract prematurely in July.
For speculation’s sake, even if there is no set figure for the buy-out, and it would cost upwards of $120 million to do so (the length of the deal plus extra compensation), such money is proverbial chicken feed to the new sheikh charges. Now that it has genuine mid-term ambitions of playing in the UEFA Champions League, the club is also a far more appealing proposition to outside parties. The sales pitch is completely different from when the Castore contract was inked, and they had, aside from its fervent local fanbase, no real USP to differentiate themselves from other mid-table clubs in the league.
Ashley is a notoriously slippy character who has essentially used Newcastle as a billboard for his Sports Direct business over the years (think of Dick’s Sporting Goods, only 100 times tackier). The PIF has already walked away from the table after attempting to buy the club before, and when doing their due diligence, would surely have anticipated all kinds of onerous contracts. With the kit sponsor signed away for the foreseeable future, there’s every chance their negotiators could use the information as a bargaining chip to drive down the agreed feed for buying the club. It’s clear the new ownership is in it for the long-term, and six years with Castore is no time at all in the grand scheme of things.
Both scenarios outlined above are win-win for Castore. Either they get a healthy lump sum having been bought out, or they remain on the jerseys of a side that is sure to feature in worldwide back page headlines moving forward. Which scenario would they rather have?
Clout and brand equity are everything when it comes to new players in the fashion scene, and it’s impossible to put a price on the exposure a big adidas or Nike superstar donning the Castore phoenix logo every week would bring. The Beahons have yet to comment on the news of the takeover — to be expected given the negative headlines surrounding the new Saudi owners — but it seems unlikely that they’d experience any kind of moral quandary when it comes to working with their new partners. After all, they were happy to saddle up with Ashley, whose image is hardly squeaky clean. Sports brands generally have never been too fussed in this regard. Scratch beyond the shiny veneer of football, and you'll find there are dubious financiers everywhere — it's just some are worse than others. Admittedly, Saudi Arabia, which was on the front pages not so long ago after allegedly ordering the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its own embassy, would rank top (or should that be rock bottom?) by some distance.
When PSG owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi unveiled Lionel Messi at the Parc De Princes in the summer, he declared them to be the most powerful brand in the world. It had Messi. It had Jordan Brand and Nike. It had Paris. Newcastle is the opposite in every conceivable way. Located just a 90-minute drive from the Scottish border, it’s a vibrant city with friendly locals and popular nightlife, but lacks the allure of a London or even Manchester (think more Eldon Square than Bernard Arnault's La Samaritaine). "It's grim up North," as the saying goes. If you ever visit, remember to pack warm clothes.
The club’s marketing department won’t be drawing up plans to take on Fabian Allegre and his crack team just yet, but rest assured, when the bigger names start arriving and the club starts picking up more traction abroad, so too will interest from the likes of Nike and adidas. We will find out how they plan on presenting the club to the world in due course, but whatever happens, Castore and the Toon Army are in for a heck of a ride. Just don't expect it to happen overnight.