Mark Willeford

Mark Willeford, the youngest child of Len and Mona Willeford, closed his family’s sporting goods business, The Sports Shop, at the end of 2022 after 45 years. He’s now operating the embroidery and engraving parts of the business out of his garage.

Elk Grove was a much different city 45 years ago when Len and Mona Willeford and their children opened “The Sports Shop.”

“There was just a four-way stop sign at Elk Grove Blvd. and Elk Grove-Florin Road,” the Willeford’s youngest child, Mark, recalled recently. “We grew with the community. They helped us pick what we were going to sell.”

The Sports Shop for most of those 45 years was not just Elk Grove’s, but the entire southern half of Sacramento County’s only sporting goods shop. Year after year local baseball leagues sent their players to The Sports Shop to pick up their uniform pants and socks. At the end of the season and after much toiling, Len would have engraved trophies ready for all the players.

The Willeford’s business survived local competition from the big-box sporting good dealers. Sports Authority, Sports Chalet, Dick’s Sporting Goods all came and left Elk Grove, but The Sports Shop hung around.

But, finally, it was the huge presence of the online retailers that spelled doom for the Sports Shop. At the end of 2022 and with his mother Mona and sisters Debbie and Kelly now retired, Mark decided to close the store.

“We want to say thanks to all the customers, the loyal customers we’ve had over the years,” Willeford said.

When he was in high school Willeford said his dad noticed how all the south Sacramento County athletes had to drive into Sacramento for all their uniforms and equipment.

“Dad said, ‘Let’s build a sporting good store,’” he recalled. “It was the best thing he ever did. It was a good run.”

With a now empty retail space on Elk Grove-Florin Road behind him, Willeford started to reminisce how his family worked together, he and his sisters from when they were teenagers.

“Dad would do the engraving, I learned and handled the embroidery, putting on the patches on the lettermen’s jackets, Kelly got into silk screening and Mom and Debbie did all the books,” he said.

He pointed out how through all the years of serving the local sports leagues with equipment and uniforms, it was the Elk Grove Babe Ruth League that stuck with The Sport Shop.

“We sure appreciated all their loyalty,” Willeford said. “At one time we had 11 leagues we were working with, even from outside the area from Pocket to Land Park.

About 20 years ago when the batting cages across Elk Grove-Florin Road, “Grand Slam” closed the Willefords moved The Sports Shop from where it was at the time on East Stockton Blvd. to the industrial park on the south side of town and opened their own batting cage/sporting good shop facility.

“When the Lent Ranch Mall started we thought everything was going to move that way,” Willeford recalled. “Then they went belly-up but we had already purchased the building. We were a little premature.”

They ended up moving again, this time to Emerald Park Village in 2008.

Though they survived the onslaught of the big sporting good retailers, the difficulties of the last couple years took its toll on their business.

“The pandemic, number one,” Willeford said. “There was so much uncertainty. Competing with Amazon is pretty tough, order one day and get it the next. It’s pretty tough retail-wise to compete against that. You have to offer a service or a niche which our engraving did and our embroidery did, so we were fortunate to go this long.”

He didn’t exactly have a going-out-of-business sale. Willeford gave away clothing to homeless outreaches. The Babe Ruth League got his catching gear.

The Sports Shop may now be gone as a brick-and-mortar retail shop, but Willeford isn’t.

“I’m like every other Joe and work out of the garage,” he chuckled.

“Mark’s Embroidery” is now his business name, which specializes in custom lettermen’s jackets. Len has long since passed away so Mark is keeping his dad’s memory alive by still offering engraving services on trophies, plagues and the like, as well.

He can be reached at embroiderybymark@gmail.com.

email: egsports@valleyoakpress.com

Twitter: @EGCSports

John's Twitter: @JohnHullEG

Sports Editor

John Hull has been with the Citizen sports department since 2007. His background is in radio and television then spent 15 years as a media production teacher at Cosumnes River College and Luther Burbank High School, retiring in 2019.