When the UK’s largest sporting goods retailer, Sports Direct decided they were going to help during the Covid-19 pandemic, it became quite apparent that their kind of “help” was really just a transparent, self-serving move to put profits above any service that might actually improve their customers’ situations.

When the country entered into its first national lockdown, the sport retail giant announced it would keep its retail stores open, claiming that they were a vital national asset.1

In a statement its workforce, Sports Direct said, “‘Against the backdrop of the closure of gyms the demand for these types of products has increased exponentially as the population looks to maintain a healthy lifestyle. There is no one else that has the range of product and range of stores to make this reasonably accessible for the whole population.”2

That declaration did not resonate well with employees nor the government, but it ended up being for naught – after called out Sports Direct was required to close its stores’ doors in accordance with the lockdown.

The story could have ended there for the sports equipment provider. Instead, they felt no apparent shame when they raised the online prices of many of their home fitness products a whopping 50%. The price increases alone got them negative attention. But that scrutiny led to the reveal that despite the closures, some employees were telling the media they were being required to keep working in the stores and factories to keep their jobs. That was despite government advice to stay at home unless they were an essential worker – which had already been deemed not the case. Employees began reporting a lack of the workplace protections, told not to clock in before beginning shifts, and other not-so-altruistic moves.

Numerous workers came forward reported they felt that they were being forced to make a choice of risking their health and keeping their jobs.3

That’s a terrible, terrible message to send to the public under any circumstances. Worse still, it’s the message they were inadvertently sending during what is arguably the worst health crisis in a century.

Needless to say, the media didn’t mince words with their ensuing press coverage:

Mirror: Coronavirus: Sports Direct hikes prices of exercise equipment by more than 50%

Daily Mail: Sports Direct hikes online prices by up to 50% while Britons exercise at home due to coronavirus lockdown – as boss Mike Ashley’s factory staff claim they are forced to work despite him closing all UK stores in U-turn after backlash

Yahoo! Finance: Sports Direct hikes prices on sports equipment following store U-turn

When an entire nation is facing a common crisis, businesses often come together to do their part to help out. Examples abound – donations of money, water, and medical supplies for victims of natural disasters, participating in fundraising events to help the needy, and so on. When the UK, like rest of the world, was faced with the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses made moves to alter their services or create entirely new ones so they could do what they could to keep helping the public, all wise decisions that helped solve their customers’ problems and earn them good standing in the public eye.

Sports Direct didn’t think of the public first – they tried to take advantage of a situation strictly for their own benefit and did so first under the guise of selflessness – “…helping the public maintain a healthy lifestyle” as they put it.

But when they didn’t get their way (keeping their stores open to that public) jacking up the prices of many of their online products and putting many of their employees into difficult health and financial positions makes you look greedy and callous.

What a way to beat up your own reputation for the sake of profit alone.

Sure, Sports Direct is in the business of making money, but using deception as the means to your end is always going to backfire. We’re living in a world where information and access to it is easy. People will find you out. And the ones to tell the worlds are your best representatives – your employees.

Have honest intentions, find other to changing things for the better through innovation. Yes, it’s an uphill battle, but there’s the PR payoff – your employees are just as willing to tell the world about your good deeds as they are about any bad ones. That makes them your best allies for winning in the court of public opinion instead of sending you to the gallows.

And I guarantee you, the press will be there waiting.

JOTO PR Disruptors™ knows intimately well that PR is not just about your clients and prospects –your reputation starts with your own people. Contact us for a complimentary Anti-PR™ evaluation today!

Ready to show your target audience that you’re solving problems?

Give us a call: 888-919-4034.


  1. Parker, Daney. “Ten biggest PR disasters of 2020.” PRMoment, 10 Dec. 2020, prmoment.com/pr-insight/ten-biggest-pr-disasters-of-2020.
  2. Menendez, Elisa. “Sports Direct increase price of sport kit online after coronavirus closure.” Metro, 24 March 2020, metro.co.uk/2020/03/24/sports-direct-increase-price-sport-kit-online-coronavirus-closure-12449117/.
  3. Butler, Sarah. “Sports Direct managers accuse firm of making them work on furlough.” The Guardian, 3 May 2020, theguardian.com/business/2020/may/03/sports-direct-managers-accuse-firm-of-making-them-work-on-furlough.
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