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Ashley's Sports Direct Drops Wall Street Bank

(c) Sky News 2013

The retailer led by Mike Ashley, billionaire owner of Newcastle United FC, is parting company with the Wall Street banking giant that helped it float on the stock market six years ago.

I understand that Sports Direct International (LSE: SPD.L - news) has quietly ended its corporate broking relationship with Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAML), one of the main players in the City's important corporate broking market.

Sports Direct was set up by Mr Ashley in the 1980s, since when it has become a powerhouse on Britain's high streets, emerging as a big winner despite the torrid economic backdrop.

The decision to terminate the relationship is understood to have been mutual, and brings the curtain down on one of the more colourful episodes in the recent history of corporate broking. In 2007, shortly after Sports Direct became a public company, a £200,000 legal bill was settled in Merrill Lynch's favour following a game of spoof between the bank and Mr Ashley.

Mr Ashley, who acquired a small stake in Rangers, the Scottish third division team, during its recent stock market listing, has profited from the demise of several of Sports Direct's rivals, including JJB Sports, which collapsed into administration late last year.

Insiders said that Oriel's role as joint broker to Sports Direct, which began last June, is not under review, and added that a joint broker to work alongside Oriel was likely to be appointed "at some point down the line".

Sports Direct recently appointed a former Merrill Lynch banker, Jeff Blue, to take on a key executive role developing the company's expansion strategy. Mr Blue was among the team that worked on the Sports Direct flotation.

The role of corporate brokers is to act as intermediaries between company executives and institutional shareholders, which banks hope will then lead to more lucrative work with clients such as advising on mergers and acquisitions and capital-raising activity.

Sports Direct has been among the more successful initial public offerings in London in recent years, having risen more than 30 per cent since the flotation.

The company has, however, had a rough ride from investors over plans for a new share bonus scheme that could see Mr Ashley, the company's executive deputy chairman, reaping a fortune worth more than £40m if he and the company meet performance targets. A new vote on the scheme is due shortly.

Sports Direct and BAML both declined to comment.