Right or Wonga?

WHAT'S IN A NAME: St James' Park - which was renamed the Sports Direct Arena - has reverted back to his rightful title as part of the deal with Wonga

WHAT'S IN A NAME: St James' Park - which was renamed the Sports Direct Arena - has reverted back to his rightful title as part of the deal with Wonga

First published in Scott Wilson The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

LET’S start with something I think we’ll all be able to agree on. Wonga, the payday lender that signed a four-year sponsorship deal with Newcastle United this week, is a company that makes the toes curl.

Its business model is morally repugnant, preying on the most financially vulnerable members of society and actively targeting those it knows can least afford to meet its terms.

Its rate of interest, an eyewatering 4,214% APR, is utterly obscene. It has been condemned by politicians, debt counsellors and even the Football Association in recent days, all of whom are concerned at the normalising effect of its new relationship with Newcastle.

In short, it is a business that is easy to detest. But that does not mean Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias should have turned down Wonga’s offer to sponsor the Magpies. For all the rightminded criticism that has been hurled at Newcastle’s owners this week, they have done nothing wrong.

They have accepted the best offer that was on the table, taking the cash of a legal and legitimate company that has pledged to invest in Newcastle’s academy and foundation to aid the long-term development of the club.

That is their right as owner and managing director. Despite Newcastle United’s undoubted standing in the city and wider North-East, they do not have a duty to provide moral and ethical leadership.

Premier League football doesn’t do that any more, if indeed it ever did. Clubs are owned by foreign oligarchs or conduits of sovereign states, millionaire players are out of touch with reality, balance sheets are an affront to decency in the midst of an enduring recession.

Why should Newcastle be expected to make an ethical stand when the world in which they operate is so completely compromised?

After all, there was none of this uproar when Wonga agreed sponsorship deals with Blackpool and Hearts.

Blackpool were in the Premier League when they brought Wonga on board. Is Newcastle that special a club or city that different rules have to apply?

The argument that North- East impoverishment demands heightened controls falls down in the face of a recent Church of England report that listed the ten poorest areas in England. Blackpool was on the list, Newcastle wasn’t.

Anyway, its unfair to focus all of this attention on Wonga in the first place, ignoring football’s other commercial partners, many of whom are equally illfitting when it comes to promoting themselves alongside the beautiful game.

Take the FA for example, whose general secretary, Alex Horne, is one of those to have expressed concern about the Newcastle deal.

That’ll be the same FA that receive an estimated £8m a year from Budweiser for their sponsorship of the FA Cup.

Promoting alcohol to football-loving children up and down the country, I can’t see anything morally questionable about that.

What about the Football League, whose showpiece competition, the Capital One Cup, is now sponsored by a credit card company whose ‘Classic Mastercard’ boasts an APR of 34.9%. Is that responsible lending?

And then of course there’s the good old Premier League, or the Barclays Premier League as it is keen to be known thanks to its tie up with a bank that was fined £290m in June for attempting to manipulate the key interest rate that influences the cost of loans and mortgages.

Newcastle’s past sponsorship record is equally chequered, embracing Greenalls and Newcastle Breweries, purveyors of alcohol in a region that has one of the worst alcohol-related health records in the country, and Northern Rock, who signed up thousands of borrowers on 125% mortgage deals and relied on a flawed financial model that eventually resulted in the first run on a bank in this country for well over a century.

In the wider North-East, it’s possible to ask ethical questions of Ramsdens, the pawnbrokers who are lead sponsors of Middlesbrough, and even Invest In Africa, the charitable institution that help fund Sunderland.

Tullow Oil are the driving force behind Invest In Africa, and oil companies don’t generally invest anywhere for altruistic reasons.

Some might feel Wonga is worse than the companies mentioned above, others might feel it is better. In terms of Newcastle’s dealings though, it is really no different.

It would be, of course, if the Government was to introduce legislation outlawing payday lending companies.

The Labour politicians and councillors who have lined up to criticise Newcastle this week should perhaps reflect on the decade their party spent in power when they failed to introduce a single piece of legislation relating to payday lenders.

They could also ask their leaders why there is not yet a manifesto pledge to tackle the issue. Concerned supporters of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could perhaps do the same.

Eventually, that might make a difference. It would certainly be more useful that grandstanding against the easy target of Newcastle United.

LANCE ARMSTRONG

WHILE we’re on the subject of moral repugnance, let’s turn our attention to Lance Armstrong.

Sporting champion and charity fundraiser; now charged with six offences covering the use of banned substances, the trafficking of drugs, the administration of drugs to team-mates and the aiding and abetting of the biggest doping cover-up in history.

His reputation is in tatters, yet he still continues to protest his innocence and bury his head in the sand.

For more than a decade, he was a sporting icon, a beacon of hope thanks to his successful battle against cancer.

Beating such a virulent disease was always his biggest victory.

Today, it is the only one that remains on his record.

Everything else was achieved illegally.

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