Nowhere are Britain’s economic ills more evident than on our high streets. Most small retailers (and many big ones) are struggling. Demand for secondary trading positions is negligible, while a stroll down virtually any high street will only confirm that the volume of boarded-up shop fronts rises with depressing regularity.

Yet amid this picture of wholesale gloom, a controversial figure has become the City’s new darling, thanks mainly to the nation’s love of casual sportswear and seemingly insatiable demand for branded sporting goods.

We might be destined for years of negligible economic growth, so we may as well be comfortable as we endure what promises to be an uncomfortable ride.

Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley is not everyone’s cup of tea and following the flotation of his company in 2007 at 300p a share, his organisation enjoyed what is best described as a volatile relationship with investors and the City.

Ashley founded his first sports shop in Maidenhead in 1982. Twenty five years later, he owned 500 extremely profitable stores which made him worth around £2bn when the company listed on the London stock exchange.

Retaining 57 per cent of Sports Direct, as the company’s share price plummeted, Ashley gradually acquired a further 15 per cent at a cost of £200m, though this intervention made little difference.

Sales volumes continued to drop but then it emerged Sports Direct’s downturn was relatively short-lived.

The company’s business model is founded upon the sale of cheap, branded sportswear.

Of course lots of retailers do something similar, though Ashley’s organisation sells the wares of many well-established brands it also owns.

Famous sporting marques such as Everlast, Slazenger and Kangol are part of the Sports Direct empire. This means the company’s profit margin on these brands is significantly greater than its rivals.

The company recently announced underlying pre-tax profits of £135.5m for the year ending April 24, a figure which exceeded its own ambitious targets. According to some City analysts, underlying profits could rise by 14 per cent by April 2012.

Following impressive results, it would appear that almost all of Sports Direct’s staff are scheduled to benefit as an incentive scheme established in 2009 is due to reward them with a payout in shares currently worth an average £30,960 each.

When combined with a second payout for meeting the previous year's target, staff awards are worth an average of £43,850.

Chief executive David Forsey attributes much of Sports Direct’s success to the employee profit share scheme, saying suggestions that profits were boosted by rivals’ woes had been “overplayed”.

He said: “The bonus share scheme has been a massive influence over the performance of the group. It has acted as a glue to pull everyone together.”

Sports Direct’s impressive comeback has been made possible by Ashley’s nerve, a generous staff profit share scheme and, undoubtedly, the nation’s ongoing fixation with sport.

None of these three important factors appear likely to change in the foreseeable future.

Indeed, the forthcoming 18 months promise to be a bumper period for sport.

Apart from the Rugby World Cup, there is the Euro 2012 Championships and of course, the Olympics.

Given Sports Direct’s robust business model, it looks possible that as gloom envelops other areas of the high street, this is one company capable of emerging relatively unscathed.