Sports Direct International (SDI) has built up an economic interest amounting to about 9 percent by acquiring 4.3 million shares in Iconix Brand Group, the owner of Umbro and other sports brands. A document filed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) indicates that SDI has been steadily buying into Iconix since November, when the U.S. group was under intense pressure. However, SDI's investments went through contracts that prevent the British sports retailer and wholesaler from exercising any rights to vote or direct the voting, or the power to dispose or direct the disposition of any of the shares.

SDI already had a stake of nearly 30 percent in Umbro a few years ago, before the British football brand was purchased by the Nike group in 2008 for $582 million. Iconix bought Umbro from Nike four years later for $225 million. Other sports-related brands in which Iconix has interests and licenses are Starter, Ocean Pacific, Danskin and Pony.

SDI has made a habit of buying stakes in rival retailers and acquiring sports brands, from Karrimor to Everlast, Gelert, USA Pro and many more. Among SDI's most recent investments is a stake in Findel, the British owner of two specialist online retailers, where the board and most other shareholders rejected SDI's attempt to gain influence through a board appointment last month. On the other hand, SDI's investment in Debenhams has probably helped it to establish nine concessions in these department stores.

The price of Iconix shares has shrunk by more than 80 percent since the abrupt departure of the company's chief executive and an accounting issue that forced Iconix to restate its financial results for part of the last three years. Late last year the group acknowledged that the SEC, which had previously been in touch with Iconix over its accounting of joint ventures, was launching a probe into the company. SDI declined to comment on the purpose of its interest-building process in Iconix.