Perhaps best known for the trademark dinosaur that greets guests at the entrance, Sports Center is a 54-acre family entertainment center that has been located at 6545 S.W. 10th Avenue in Topeka since 1972.
A Topeka family tradition, the business has undergone many transformations over the course of its 50-year history and recently changed ownership.
Brothers Scott, Kurt, Brad, and Brian Walker purchased Sports Center nearly a year ago in May 2021 from previous owners, Stan and Sheryl Swanson.
“We’ve always wanted to do something together, us four brothers,” said Kurt Walker. “There’s not a whole lot to do outside in Topeka, so we wanted to bring a more tropical, fun-park vibe.”
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Walker said that while Kansas City residents have many options close to home, Topekans are currently required to travel out of town if they want to enjoy a modernized golf experience, and the Walkers would like to see that change.
Sports Center expanding offerings
Renovations have already begun on the 2,700-square foot clubhouse, which includes a snack bar, indoor seating areas, and a game room, with plans to update the current arcade offerings. The Walkers recently applied for and received a liquor license to allow them to begin selling a variety of beer options, including Boulevard Brewing Company products, and are in the process of adding a slushy machine ahead of the summer.
Sports Center customers can find putter golf, Gooney golf, nine batting cages, a driving range, and go karts. The go karts are currently only open on weekends and when school is out due to the labor-intensive process of inspecting and maintaining them daily so that they’re ready to be driven. All other activities are open during regular business hours. Hours are dependent on the season and the weather.
Lower-cost, outside family fun is goal
As an affordable option for families in the area, the current pricing for go karts or 18 holes of putter golf is $9 per person. A small bucket of balls to use at the driving range is $5, with medium and large buckets $9 and $14 respectively. Sports Center continues to offer birthday party options as well as work, large group, and school events to the community.
Walker said that he and his brothers have added several water features around the park, with possible plans going forward for a splash pad near the batting cages to help kids cool off during the hot summer months. He also said that the batting cages recently received a much-needed upgrade.
“It’s a whole new system,” he said. “One of the new machines lets you hit baseballs or softballs and choose the speed.”
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The existing covered pavilion, which can accommodate large groups of people, will soon see the addition of TVs mounted on the walls, allowing sporting events to be broadcast during business hours. There are also plans for additional restrooms toward the west end of the property to make facilities more accessible from the driving range, pavilion, go karts, and batting cages.
‘It seemed like people forgot about it’
Walker said one of the reasons he and his brothers were drawn to the idea of owning Sports Center was because all four played multiple sports growing up. Kurt and Brian played golf.
The former golf course at Sports Center closed 15 years ago due to the rising cost of upkeep outpacing the revenue it provided. It has been sitting unused and overgrown since that time.
“There hasn’t been much here in the last 15 years, so it seemed like people forgot about it,” said Kurt.
He and his brothers, along with their cousin Casey Travis, have been clearing out underbrush and uncovering the old markers to make the former golf course functional once again. Walker said part of the clean-up included correcting overflow issues with the pond that sits on the course.
In the process, they came across what is believed to be one of the original signs from when the business was coined Sports Center.
“We want to bring the golf course back with a different golf experience. We want it to have a different vibe and a fun atmosphere,” he said.
‘Famous Holes Around the World’
Part of that plan includes the installation of turf, as well as offering night golfing options since the course already has outdoor lighting via existing poles. While the design of the new course is still in the planning stages, Walker said he and his brothers have considered centering it around a “Famous Holes Around the World” theme.
This would allow golfers in Topeka to play replicas of famous golf holes from all over, including a replica of Hole 12 from Augusta, a 155-yard par 3, which is possibly the most famous hole in all of golf, or the Island Green, a par-3, 132-yard hole surrounded on three sides by water and located at TPC Sawgrass in Florida.
PGA golfer Jim Colbert first opened site
Their vision also includes an elevated bar near the driving range where guests can have drinks while they hit some golf balls. There has even been conversation about adding a restaurant to the property at some point in the future.
2022 marks 50 years since Sports Center first opened as Jim Colbert’s Golf Center. Duane Dale has been the facilities manager since 1977 and remembers the history of the business almost from its inception.
The house that stands on the property was once the original clubhouse where first owner and PGA golfer Jim Colbert lived. Colbert only operated the center for a little more than two years before selling it to Dean Rabe in 1976. At that point, it hadn’t been operational for quite some time.
Rabe started essentially from scratch to rebuild and add to the existing facilities, including the addition of a small clubhouse. He restored the par-3, 9 hole golf course and hired Dale as his golf course superintendent.
A horticulture student at Kansas State University at the time, Dale’s father knew Dean Rabe and got him the job. Dale was responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the golf course and grounds, a position he’s held for 45 years now.
“I majored in horticulture, so I liked taking care of the golf course,” said Dale. “Taking care of golf greens takes a high level of skill.”
The addition of a putter golf course and a larger 30-by-30 square foot clubhouse came in 1980, with the putter golf course expanding again by 18 holes in 1981. The current clubhouse opened in August 1990, and Rabe sold the business three years later in 1993 to his daughter and son-in-law, Stan and Sheryl Swanson. Dale said he’s seen a lot of changes over 45 years at the business.
“We had a golf course, and then a Christmas tree farm for 25 years with 14,000 Christmas trees,” he said. “Dean was trying to find a way to keep me busy in the winter, but he didn’t realize how much work it was in the summer too. It was a lot of fun, but we didn’t make much money doing it.”
‘It’s fun to work here’
The tree farm became a family tradition for many Topeka families who would take a wagon ride to the back of the property where they could select a tree and have it cut down, bagged, hauled, and loaded onto their vehicle to take home for the season.
In the summer, Sports Center held a junior golf program for kids, hosting up to four camps per summer with around 60 kids per session, something Walker said they eventually hope to be able to offer again. The business also hosted local high school physical education programs and golf teams, as well as youth programs through Topeka Parks and Recreation.
“We’re up to the third generation,” said Dale. “People will come in here and say, ‘I played out here as a kid, and now I’m out here with my grandkids.’”
It’s also not unusual for couples to tell Dale that they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary at Sports Center because it was the location of their first date.
“I enjoy what I do. Every day is different. It’s never the same.”
Walker said Sports Center hasn’t been plagued by the staffing shortages that many businesses have faced over the past few years, and he chalks it up to it being a good environment to work in.
“We usually get a pretty good group of guys,” he said. “It’s fun to work here, and everyone’s happy. They come work here, and then their friends want to work here too.”
Walker said Sports Center plans to hold events throughout the year to celebrate 50 years in business.
Along with food truck appearances and specials, event information can be found by calling the Sports Center at (785) 272-5522, visiting its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/Sports-Center-Family-Fun-Center-146340556791/ or by going to the company’s website, https://sportscentertopeka.com/.
“We want this to be the place to be and bring your whole family out, and make it fun for kids and adults,” Walker said.