The sportswear rivals JJB Sports and Sports Direct were given a lift yesterday after the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) decided to close its long-running probe into alleged price fixing.
The inquiry began in January 2009 when JJB turned whistleblower byapproaching the watchdog.
While JJB's full co-operation with the OFT would have given it immunity from prosecution, the market leader Sports Direct could have faced a fine equal to as much as 10 per cent of its turnover over a "suspected overarching agreement to dampen competition in the sports retail market".
Following a referral from the OFT, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) launched an investigation into thepossible cartel activity and raided both retailers' offices in September 2009.
But yesterday Sports Direct said the OFT had confirmed it had "provisionally decided to close its investigation into alleged anti-competitive conduct in the sports retail sector".
The exact nature of the alleged activities has never been disclosed but they relate to the period Chris Ronnie, the former chief executive of JJB Sports, was at the helm between 8 June 2007 and 25 March 2009. Mr Ronnie has always protested his innocence.
Keith Hellawell, the chairman of Sports Direct, said: "We welcome the announcement by the OFT. It is in line with Sports Direct's long held views on the investigation."
The OFT said it would make its final decision later this year. But if, asexpected, both retailers are cleared of any wrongdoing it would mark the end of a series of inquiries targeted at individuals at Sports Direct – which is 71.2 per cent owned by founder Mike Ashley – and the company itself over recent years.
JJB faced five inquiries at one point in 2009, but for Sports Direct – which has faced at least as many investigations – the latest green light is a bigger fillip. Sports Direct could have faced a fine of about £137m, based on its turnover in September 2009, if it had been found guilty of price-fixing.
Most of the probes faced by both JJB and Sports Direct in recent years have related to activities between the two of them. In March, the SFO closed its inquiry into individuals involved in Sports Direct's purchase of 31 stores from its rival JJB Sports in 2009.