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Darrell Spencer holds a current broomball broom, which use a hard rubber paddle rather than the older-style corn broom. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Duluth broomball business takes off on the Web

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When Darrell Spencer started selling broomball equipment online six years ago, he was just trying to promote the sport he loved and help players get the equipment they needed.

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After all, Spencer owned and operated two Play It Again Sports stores in the Twin Ports, a full-time job for anyone.

He had never sold on the Internet before, so he hired a local software company to set up the site for him.

The online business, broomball.com, took off. And it's led to a lifestyle most only dream of -- working full time half the year and more time for the things he loves.

At first, Spencer ran the online business out of his store office. But the boxes soon filled the office, so he moved the operation to a large garage at his rural Duluth home.

"It just grew and grew," he said. "It grew 10 to 15 percent a year. One year it grew 25 percent."

It became so successful that Spencer had to hire someone to run the Play It Again Sports stores for him.

"I did it five years and figured out I could probably make a living doing it and spend more time with my family," he said.

So in September 2009, after 20 years in retail, he sold his Play It Again Sports stores. And he hasn't looked back.

"Doing business on the Web is amazing," said Spencer, 40. "Retail is great, I had a great time, but doing business on the Web is a lot less stressful, less overhead, no employees and it's easier. I go to bed. I get up. I have all these orders. I ship them out myself, so it's a pretty neat business."

His orders come in from all over the country, Canada and overseas.

"People all over the world are playing broomball, and they can't get equipment," he said.

Everybody who plays broomball today uses the equipment, said Lou Campbell, an avid broomball player in Duluth.

The days of grabbing an old-fashioned corn broom or even a cut-off broom to play broomball are long gone. Today's broomball requires special rubber shoes for better traction, high-tech, rubber-head brooms, helmets, padding and regulation balls. Knee and elbow pads are similar to those for hockey but lighter for speed.

"He took a niche and created an empire," Campbell said of Spencer. "There's no question about it. If you are in (a small town) in Michigan and there are no stores around, this is the place to buy it."

Now, in the midst of the winter busy season, Spencer is shipping 50 to 80 pairs of shoes a week.

"I carry a hundred products, but all I sell every day is brooms, broomball shoes and balls, just what you need to play," Spencer said. "That's 80 percent of what I sell."

A growing sport

In Duluth, there are about 180 adult teams playing broomball, with about 125 at the University of Minnesota Duluth alone, Spencer said.

Many get their equipment at local sporting goods stores.

Spencer said he's not trying to compete for the local business. Most of his customers live where equipment is hard to find.

Among his customers is Mondo Normile, who runs a broomball league in Charlotte, N.C. Charlotte has a co-ed league of six teams with about 70 players. But they can't find the equipment they need there, he said.

Normile, who first played broomball while attending college in upstate New York, submits a group order for the players several times a year.

"Broomball in the country has grown," Normile said. "I know it's becoming more popular. New teams are being developed. People who have come from different areas are excited to find it here. Those who have moved away are glad when they find it there."

Spencer played the sport himself for 20 years, until injuries kept him from competitive play. He describes the game as a cross between hockey and soccer.

"I liked hockey but it was too expensive for my family, and so I started playing broomball when I was 15 and fell in love with the game," Spencer said. "It's just a great sport for anybody to play."

More free time

For Spencer, the business has provided the added benefit of more time for hunting, fishing and his family -- sons Jack, 7, and Alex, 13, and his wife, Pam.

While he might put in 10- to 12-hour days in busy December and January, two to three hours a week is all it takes to fill orders in the summer. So summers are spent with his sons and on Lake Superior, fishing.

Even the three to five hours per day of work needed in the fall allows him plenty of time for hunting. He would hunt in the morning, return home to ship out some orders, then go back to hunting for a total of more than 100 hours in a deer stand.

"I make a good living doing it, and I like the lifestyle doing it," Spencer said. "I made more (money) with the two stores, but money isn't everything."

But how big does he want the business to get?

"I haven't reached my goal yet, but I'm close," Spencer said as he stood amid tall stacks of broomball shoes and helmets in his garage. "I'll be happy with staying where I am or growing a little bit."

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