SEMINOLE — Don Bates considers himself the luckiest man on the planet. For 43 years he's owned and operated Allen Sports Center, a ubiquitous pillar of local youth sports. For decades, if a parent needed to get their kids outfitted for the season, if they needed new uniforms, a new baseball glove or tennis racket, they'd take the family to Allen's.
Customers became lifelong friends. He's met a lot of great people who just walked through the store's doors.
"It's unheard of for a local sports business to last over 40 years," said Bates, 67. "It's a relationship business and our ties to the community are very, very deep."
Those days will end on Feb. 9. That's when Bates will close the doors to the walk-in retail portion of the store.
The screen printing, embroidery and lettering side of the business will continue operating under a new owner. Bates sold his business to a sporting goods company, BSN Sports, which had been trying to buy his business for years.
But he's getting out of the retail game. In-store retail sales have plummeted from 75 percent of store profits to just 10 percent in recent years, he said. Bates also said that he's ready for a change of pace. It was the right time to sell.
Still, he called it "the hardest decision I've ever had to make."
The store's name comes from the grandfather of Bates' wife, Kathy. Her grandparents, Sam and Marcia Allen, owned Allen R. Shuffleboard, a widely-known business since the 40s. So when they partnered together to open the sporting goods store, they knew they had to maintain the family name.
Nearly everyone in the Bates' family has worked in the store at some point in their life. Don Bates' 84-year-old father drives 45 minutes from Brandon just to help out three times a week. It's something he's been doing for 17 years.
Out of the 29 employees currently working at Allen Sports Center, 26 will continue to work under BSN Sports. Preserving jobs was non-negotiable, Don Bates said. He wanted to find a buyer who would retain his workers, most of whom have worked at the store for nearly 20 years.
Bates enjoyed the reputation his store at 6585 Seminole Blvd. had built in the community as the place to bring a child to get them fitted for their first pair of cleats. Or the place to grab equipment at the last minute before a big game.
"The part I think I will miss most about our retail is fitting a child for their first pair of cleats and having them run down the aisles to show me how fast they are now," Bates said. "Or the kids rushing in before a game because the dog ate their cap and they needed one for their first game."
That kind of dependability and customer service attracted parents and coaches alike from across the bay area. Retired Seminole High School football coach Sam Roper worked with the store for 41 years, all the way back to when he started his coaching career at Clearwater High. He chose to do business with them because he knew they would always get his order completed quickly and they would always get it right.
Through all of those years, he can't remember a single time Allen Sports Center got his order wrong.
"Every time I went into the store I felt like a valued customer," Roper said. "Whether I was buying two footballs for 15 to 20 football helmets I got the same service." The store provided almost all of the equipment needs for local high school teams, from baseball bats to uniforms. When Bates first opened the store on July 1, 1975 they even provided the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with all of the team's equipment for its infamous inaugural season in 1976.
"When stretch pants became a thing, we provided them with their very first pair," Bates said. "I told them not to wear them during games but they ignored me and sure enough during a pre-season game one of the players drawers just dropped straight to the ground."
Bates said he always insisted his sales people visit customers in person rather than relying on the telephone or email. It was more personal that way. Former Boca Ciega High athletic director Allyn Ramker said he always relied on Allen Sports Center — especially in a pinch.
"If you got into a jam, you knew you could call them and they would always step up to the plate," Ramker said.
Even though the store won't be in his family anymore, Bates said he isn't going away. He's agreed to stay on as the branch manager under BSN Sports.
"It's been a great run," Bates said. "We appreciate every customer we've ever had. We'll still be here, just in a little bit of a different way and with a bigger family."
Contact McKenna Oxenden at email@example.com. Follow @mack_oxenden.