Sports Authority Inc. learned the hard way that buyout debt can be a drag.

Once the biggest U.S. sporting-goods retailer, the company found it difficult to be nimble enough to stay ahead of rivals. In retailing, consumer trends shift quickly, stores constantly need upgrades and a surprise like a winter storm can make it necessary to act fast to salvage a big shopping weekend. But Sports Authority was loaded with at least $643 million in debt, a hangover from the $1.4 billion leveraged buyout in 2006 by investors led by Leonard Green & Partners.

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