John Gagliardi is Mr. Lacrosse. He's the founder and CEO of 15-person equipment maker Maverik Lacrosse, but he's also a professional lacrosse player with the Long Island Lizards and the winner of All-World honors with the 2006 U.S. national men's team. Gagliardi is the co-founder and co-director of a training camp for boys. In the spring, he coaches in a league for sixth graders. "While it's work, it's all fun work," says the 33-year-old.
It will get tougher as the market gets more competitive. Last year, about 480,000 people played lacrosse, nearly twice as many as in 2001. Sounds like good news, except that the big sports companies are taking note of the game. Says Steve Stenersen, CEO of one of the sport's governing bodies, US Lacrosse: "It's a different world now and a heck of a lot tougher for the small guy to break in." New Balance got into lacrosse in 2004 by buying a small gear maker; Reebok entered last year. Nike sells lacrosse clothing and cleats and says it is "exploring its options" to become more involved in the game.
But Gagliardi's long history with the sport gives Maverik a credibility, and Gagliardi an insight, that competitors are hard pressed to match. Last summer, as Maverik was developing a new glove, Gagliardi tested it during weekend matches with his employees, 13 of whom are current or former pro or college players. The glove uses a gel that protects the wearer's hand when struck. Each Monday, product developer Win Fream would hear what worked (added protection near the thumb and index finger) or didn't (reduced flexibility in a prototype). The result is "the best glove on the market," says Chris Hupfeldt, a former college player who now coaches kids and is co-owner of Competitive Edge Outfitters, a sporting goods store in Wayne, Pa. "You can tell it has been designed by people who know the game." Maverik's sales jumped 130% last year, to $2.3 million.
Gagliardi learned about entrepreneurship first by working summers in his dad's sneaker store, then for the Bishop family, who own the Long Island Lizards and founded South Beach Beverage Co. Gagliardi "always struck us as an entrepreneur," says Billy Bishop, his ex-boss. "He just seemed to have that spirit."
In 2005, Gagliardi tested the waters for his lacrosse duds by handing out sweatshirts and hats he had designed to players at his camps. Their style had more in common with snowboarding gear than with lacrosse's preppy image. A few independent sports stores agreed to carry the clothes, and Long Island City (N.Y.)-based Maverik was in business. Gagliardi initially raised $250,000 from savings, friends, and family to make the clothes and start developing a line of equipment.
Maverik is still sold mostly through specialty lacrosse shops, although getting into big-box stores is a longer-term goal. "There is way more competition [than before], and we have to fight harder to get our market share," Gagliardi says. For an intense competitor used to some tough knocks, that just makes the game more exciting.
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