Consider the wall of worms. It stretches dozens of feet and is stocked with packages of fish bait -- the plastic kind -- in a multitude of colors, shapes and sizes. The slimy-looking display elicits wrinkled-nose awe from some shoppers at the Sports Authority in Tysons Corner, and that is just what company officials are aiming for.

"The bigger, the better" is the notion that is fueling the growth of the Florida-based sporting goods retailer, which opened its doors on Leesburg Pike in May. At more than 45,000 square feet, the Northern Virginia outlet is about the size of a football field and five- to eight-times larger than the traditional sporting goods store. (Most of the chain's 15 stores come in this extra-large size, although it opened a smaller version in December at Potomac Mills Mall).

The Sports Authority's presence is a new experience for area shoppers -- long used to much smaller sporting goods stores with more limited selection -- and its entrance has intensified competition in its part of the Washington retailing world.

More importantly, according to retail observers, its success here and elsewhere could signal new directions for the sporting goods industry, which racks up $20 billion in sales a year.

"We're the new mousetrap for retailing," said Jack Smith, president and chief executive officer of Sports Authority Inc. A private company founded three years ago, it was bought for an undisclosed amount by the multibillion-dollar discount retailer K mart Corp. in March.

Said Smith, "We saw that the mega-store format was catching on in other areas of retail and thought, 'Why not sporting goods?' "

A shopper entering the store is struck by the sheer size and scope of the place. In addition to the worms, there is a 40-foot-high wall of socks, thousands of pairs of athletic shoes in a slew of styles, golf bags to the ceiling, fishing and camping gear in their clearly-marked sections and at least a dozen varieties of a hot consumer item, the Roller Blade skate. Customers see the entire inventory -- there are no stockrooms.

Smith tested the superstore concept while he was chief operating officer of national sporting goods giant Herman's World of Sporting Goods Inc. When Herman's British owners did not want to go beyond the first test superstore, Smith decided he had an idea too good to pass up.

So he collected $18 million in venture capital and opened his first store in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1987. The business expanded throughout the state, reaching seven stores in Florida today, with eight more scheduled to open next year.

With the Sports Authority's success, its investors decided to take the private company public in 1989. But when inquiries started coming in from a number of big retailers, they sold it to K mart this past spring and the original management stayed on.

K mart's deep pockets allowed Smith to expand the mega-store concept. The theory relies on the notion that the way people shop has changed dramatically in recent years. Pressed for time in a fast-paced world, many shoppers want stores that offer close to every brand and every size at low prices, to avoid having to go from store to store.

But store size can also be detrimental if it makes customers feel lost, confused or overwhelmed by selection. "You cannot have bigger just for the sake of being bigger -- you also have to offer service that lets shoppers feel like they are getting just what they need," said Smith. "Ours are more like a bunch of small stores."

Smith, who said he runs his chain without interference from K mart's Michigan-based management, is quickly expanding the Sports Authority's reach, with 22 more stores planned in the next two years, including one in Montgomery County. Smith said his 15 stores produce an average of slightly more than $10 million in sales a year. If an average store has 45,000 square feet, that's more than $220 a square foot.

Smith's aim is to overrun his main competition in each market. In the Washington area, his biggest competitors are Herman's and the Springfield-based Irving's Sports Shops Inc.

Herman's, a 70-year-old company, has more than a dozen stores in the area and more than 300 nationwide. The chain, with headquarters in New Jersey, is No. 1 in sporting goods sales nationwide at about $700 million a year.

Irving's, in business since 1927, has 18 area stores, although most have only about 7,000 square feet. Sales at each Irving's store average about $1 million per year, or a bit more than $140 a square foot.

Both Herman's and Irving's are renovating their stores in the face of this new competition, and Irving's has decided to simplify its focus, making it more of a specialty store rather than going head-to-head with the wide selection offered by the Sports Authority.

"We want to make it an easier experience for our customers," said Cynthia Dobrick of Irving's. "We were nervous when the Sports Authority first came in ... but we are creating a store that is not for the K mart shopper -- so we think there is plenty of room in the market for all of us."

Another new entrant in the sports retail scene in the Washington area is the Seattle-based co-op REI -- Recreational Equipment Inc. -- which came to College Park in 1987 and opened its newest store in Baileys Crossroads in June. REI also is busy opening stores in other major U.S. cities.

REI, a former catalogue retailer, has a much different set-up than the Sports Authority, though it too is larger than most sporting goods stores at 32,000 square feet. REI focuses mostly on camping, climbing and biking and competes more with established outdoor stores here such as Appalachian Outfitters and Hudson's Trail Outfitters.

"We're a specialty store with an outdoor bent," said Doug Braswell, manager of REI's Baileys Crossroads store. "The Sports Authority and us are two totally different ideas and I think we will both do well here."

Some analysts agree. "If done correctly -- very specialized, good service and attuned to what customers want -- stores like the Sports Authority will do great business," said Kurt Barnard, publisher of Barnard's Retail Marketing Report in New York. "As long as they keep their eye on the ball, so to speak."