Umbro

The troubled Iconix Brand Group has drawn the interest of Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct International, a U.K. sports retailer known for its rough and tumble in the market — and a long-standing interest in Iconix’s Umbro brand.

Sports Direct has acquired an indirect economic interest in 4.3 million Iconix shares, or 9 percent of the company, according to a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The interest was acquired through “contracts for differences” entered into with Monecor (London) Ltd., trading as ETX Capital.

The stake was built up over seven weeks at the end of last year and while, according to the filing, Sports Direct “does not have the power to vote or direct the vote, or power to dispose or direct the disposition, of any of the shares,” the move puts Ashley firmly into orbit around Iconix.

Shares of Iconix plummeted nearly 80 percent last year amid the departure of founder, chairman and chief executive officer Neil Cole, and an active investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The stock closed off 6.7 percent to $6.40 Tuesday, but jumped 5.6 percent in after-hours trading.

Ashley, who owns Newcastle United Football Club, is very familiar with Iconix’s Umbro athletic brand.

In 2007, he nearly doubled his stake in Umbro to 29.9 percent from 15 percent — enough to temporarily block Nike’s $582 million all-cash deal to buy the company, which required approval from shareholders owning 75 percent of the company. Nike and Ashley ultimately came to an agreement that let the deal go through. Analysts speculated at the time that the move against Nike’s bid could damage Sports Direct’s business with Nike, a major vendor for the retailer.

But the playing field reset when Nike off-loaded Umbro to Iconix for $225 million in 2012. Umbro is a major resource for Sports Direct given its heritage in English soccer.

Intellectual property specialist Iconix rode high for a time, snapping up loads of tired brands in the fashion world and building them out with licensees and ventures in China.

The accounting surrounding the formation of some of the company’s joint ventures has come under scrutiny. In November, Iconix said it would restate its results for fiscal 2013 through the first half of fiscal 2015. Last month, the company said it “intends to fully cooperate with the SEC” after the agency issued a formal notice of investigation. While the target is not known, the process allows the security watchdog’s Division of Enforcement to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify.

All of that leaves Iconix in a very vulnerable state. Clearly Ashley — who also moved to block Sanpower of China’s deal to buy House of Fraser in 2014 and still has a stake in the U.K. department store retailer — senses some sort of opportunity at Iconix.

He’s also familiar with some of the recent players and has long ties throughout the industry. Seth Horowitz, for instance, joined Iconix in 2012 and rose to be chief operating officer before leaving last year. Before that, he was ceo of Everlast Worldwide — and supported the company’s acquisition by Ashley’s Sports Direct.

In general, Iconix could be called a target-rich opportunity for a retailer or investor: beaten down, but with lots of brands that might interest a willing or strategic investor.

The company owns or has ties to 35 brands including Ocean Pacific, Danskin, Joe Boxer, Candie’s, Badgley Mischka, Rampage, Mossimo, Rocawear, Lee Cooper, London Fog, Ed Hardy, Strawberry Shortcake and Peanuts.

Sports Direct has 661 stores and sells goods under its own brands, including Dunlop, Slazenger and Everlast, and from third parties including Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Under Armour and Puma, according to S&P Capital IQ.

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