Lax World, under new ownership, charts path to growth

The new owners of Lax World plan to ride the sport's mushrooming popularity to rapidly expand the small retail chain and establish it as the go-to brand for lacrosse gear nationwide.

The popularity of lacrosse, one of the nation's fastest-growing team sports, is driving demand for equipment, apparel and uniforms, said the chain's new owners, two former Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc. executives and a Lax World executive.

"The sport is growing in leaps and bounds nationwide," said Frank Barbarino, Lax World's CEO, a former senior vice president of merchandising for Jos. A. Bank. "There's a significant opportunity, not just in existing markets but new markets, to take the brand."

Barbarino and his partners bought the Cockeysville-based chain from founder Jim Darcangelo in August for an undisclosed price. His partners include Bobby Martino, chief operating officer, who has been with Lax World for 23 years, most recently as a vice president; and Michael Stewart, executive vice president of inventory management and stores and a former Jos. A. Bank vice president of planning.

Lax World got its start 25 years ago in Kenilworth Mall in Towson, still home to its flagship store along with a separate women's lacrosse store. At the time, only a few specialty stores sold the equipment and apparel, which was made by only a few vendors and manufacturers, Martino recalled. The sport was popular in Maryland and only a few other pockets nationwide.

Lax World currently operates five stores in Maryland — in Towson, Annapolis, Columbia and Bel Air — with a half dozen spread in Virginia, Georgia and Colorado. Barbarino credits founder Darcangelo with helping to promote the sport along with his business.

The new owners see potential in each of Lax World's three channels: stores, online and wholesale.

They plan to open 40 to 50 stores, both in existing and new markets, in the next five to six years. They also want to improve the website to increase online sales and expand the wholesale business, which now accounts for about 45 percent of sales and targets lacrosse programs and teams.

To expand team sales at the youth, high school and college levels, the company expects to hire more sales representatives who will work throughout the United States.

"You've got all these young kids, starting at 5 or 6, and now working their way up to the college level," Barbarino said.

The sport has exploded in popularity, according to statistics from Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body. The number of lacrosse players jumped 5.5 percent last year to 722,205, after growing at or close to 10 percent in the two previous years, US Lacrosse said in its 2012 participation report.

Youth participation increased more than 77 percent since 2006 to almost 400,000 last year. At the high school level, lacrosse has grown faster than any other sport over the past decade, to about 282,000 players, while it is the fastest-growing sport at the NCAA level in the past nine years, with 671 college teams.

Lax World's new owners plan to revamp the entire operation. They will upgrade the point of sale and inventory management systems and work with an architect to design a new store prototype. They also plan to seek new store sites.

"We want all our stores looking and feeling the same," Barbarino said.

There's opportunity for a niche sporting goods retailer, but they face stiff competition, said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a New York-based retail consulting and investment banking firm.

"The sporting goods business, over the last couple of years, has been a good category," Davidowitz said. "It's been a growth segment."

To compete with larger sporting goods stores — as well as mass merchants that sell sporting goods — a small retailer needs to differentiate itself, he said.

"It's not just the sporting goods chains you're competing against," Davidowitz said. "If you walk into a Walmart, they have a major sporting goods department. If you walk into a Target, they have sporting goods. What you can do is present yourself differently to the consumer."

Lax World has been known for a wider assortment of lacrosse equipment in youth to adult sizes than rival sporting goods stores, Barbarino said.

"The brand is legendary because of where it started and what it has done for the sport," he said. "Our goal is to maintain what it has become."

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