Ballard’s, an Aggieville mainstay, closes shop

By Ned Seaton

Ballard’s Sporting Goods, an Aggieville pillar for more than a half-century, has closed its doors.

Owner Steve Ballard confirmed the closing in a phone conversation with The Mercury on Thursday. The store had been managed by Varney’s Book Store in the past year or so as an outlet for logo merchandise for K-State, Manhattan High, and other area high schools. Varney’s kept the Ballard’s name because of its heritage, and because both were longstanding Aggieville businesses whose owners were friends.

Steve Levin, one of the owners of Varney’s, said the Ballard’s store under Varney’s management was “kind of steadily not great,” and that they decided to close it recently. Varney’s lost the bookstore contract in the K-State Student Union and decided afterward to focus on its core business of apparel and textbooks, Levin said. The Ballard’s closing, as well as the closure of another Varney’s t-shirt outlet called “Aggieville U” on the other side of Moro Street, is part of that refocusing.

But that latest development is only a small piece of a larger story: “The day of the family-run sporting-goods store passed quite a few years ago,” Ballard said.

Several factors conspired, he said. Competition from big stores like Wal-Mart and Dick’s Sporting Good was a factor, but the killer, he said, was online competition. Ballard’s had a decent business selling baseball and softball equipment until the early 2000s, when suddenly customers could buy the same items online for less than Ballard’s was paying wholesale, he said.

“That was what killed it for us,” he said. “The sporting goods just wasn’t viable anymore.”

Eventually, he said Ballard’s sold only K-State logo merchandise and screen printing work, and kept some sporting goods there “just for old time’s sake.”

At the same time, Ballard got involved in a separate business called Collegiate Marketing Services that ran stadium stores in Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. Becky Ballard, Steve’s wife, also wasn’t involved anymore in day-to-day management

He and Levin both acknowledged that the closing was sad. The store opened in 1951. Sonny Ballard, a Manhattan High and K-State sports star, built it, along with his wife Sheryl — Steve’s parents. In the days before the Internet, before big-box stores, and before the mall, Ballard’s was the place kids went for a new ball glove, a new basketball, or a new set of cleats. Ballard’s also printed “Manhattan Slugger” shirts for kids who hit home runs in city league baseball. If you needed swimming goggles: Ballard’s. A scorebook for a ballgame? Ballard’s. Running shoes? Ballard’s.

“It was where you got all your sports stuff,” Levin recalled. “I believe they were one of the first Nike accounts. It was one of the great stores in Manhattan.”

The operation grew, with an outlet on Fort Riley Boulevard, as well as stores in Topeka, Lawrence and Olathe.

But circumstances changed and conspired against the whole operation. Thursday’s acknowledgment of the closure was just the final nail in the coffin.

“It’s sad, but I’ve been sad for a long time,” Ballard said.

Levin said he understands that a new sports-themed bar plans to open in the location at 1218 Moro and intends to keep some Ballard’s décor, to “keep the spirit of Ballard’s alive.”

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