Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct could be about to ditch its six-floor Lillywhites store on London’s Piccadilly after putting the lease on the market.
A sale could lead to the removal of the Lillywhites name from the site where the specialist sports department store has traded since 1925.
Once known as the Harrods of sport, where early Wimbledon contestants were obliged to buy their shorts and George VI picked up his coronation slippers, Lillywhites was snapped up by Ashley in 2002.
The 97-year lease for the 67,700 sq ft London building has been put on the market as the landlord, Criterion Capital, conducts rent review talks.
Documents sent to potential buyers say rents for the occupier could be as much as £4m a year. Sports Direct is thought to pay less than £1m a year.
The area is undergoing redevelopment, with a number of high-profile sites empty including the home of Tower Records, and Criterion is repurposing the nearby Trocadero.
Lillywhites was founded by members of the Lillywhite cricketing family in 1863 with a store that sold cricketing equipment and cigars on Haymarket, and by 2002 it was a chain with 10 sites around the UK.
The Forte family owned the business for years before selling it to a Portuguese retail group, Jéronimo Martins, for £28.5m in 1995.
Jéronimo Martins sold it to Ashley in 2002 after getting into financial difficulties amid growing competition from Ashley’s sports chain, then called Sports Soccer, and other rivals such as the now defunct JJB Sports.
Since Ashley bought it, Lillywhites’ main store has sold the same cut-price sportswear as Sports Direct. Its carved wood panelled staircase and ornate windows are now decorated with banners for Adidas trainers and discount suitcases. There are two other Lillywhites stores left in the UK and three in Kuwait.
Property sources were sceptical about whether Sports Direct would be able to find a retailer willing to take on its large site at a time when department stores are struggling.
Sports Direct’s House of Fraser chain has closed at least five sites since Ashley bought it out of administration last year, and it is expected to close more in 2020. Debenhams is poised to close more than 20 stores in January, and a number of local department store groups including Scotland’s Watt Brothers have fallen into administration.
Sports Direct declined to comment.