Tennis, anyone? Tennis everyone?
It spans continents. It spans ages. It spans genders. It spans socioeconomic boundaries.
Tennis can be seen as a universal sport, and a local organization hopes to make it more accessible to new and current players.
The Lebanon Valley Community Tennis Association (LebValCTA) was formed in 2019. Now, as a way of promoting the sport even further, LebValCTA aims to enclose tennis courts at the Lebanon city-owned Louser Memorial Optimist Park to allow players access to the game year-round.
It’s sort of this chicken-or-the-egg scenario. Not only is the move expected to draw more tennis players to the game, but it could also help alleviate the new demand it would create.
There’s really only one stumbling block: money.
“It’s early, but we’re still waiting for our Santa Claus,” said Jeff Robbins, who along with Mark Seaton, is the co-director and co-founder of LebValCTA.
“Early on, we began to go down this path when families suggested it would be a good idea,” Robbins said. “I don’t think we would’ve started this effort if we didn’t think a large donor would come in and give a sizeable donation.”
“It’s not a question of if we’re going to resurface the courts and cover the courts, but when,” continued Robbins. “We have set up a fundraising committee, but we have not yet approached business leaders or offered sponsorship opportunities. That’s the next strategic move we’re going to make.”
With grants and financial assistance from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the city of Lebanon, LebValCTA is well on its way to resurfacing the four tennis courts at Louser Memorial Optimist Park, at 1400 Elder St., in the southwest portion of the city – as early as 2023. LebValCTA also plans to use the current community building at Optimist Park to offer after-school education programs involving tennis.
But covering the courts is a completely different animal.
Robbins said that the city has informed LebValCTA that in order to cover them, the current courts would have to be relocated about 10 feet to accommodate the use of an existing alley. He also said that covering the four courts with a stretch fabric building could be more cost-effective than a traditional, brick and mortar structure.
Covering the courts would cost between $500,000 and $1 million.
“Yeah, I think that’s a lot of money to raise,” said Robbins. “I go from being very optimistic to being very pessimistic. I’ve had some conversations with people who are really enthusiastic. Everyone wants to get behind helping local youth. There are some people who are sure it’s doable over time. There are other times when it feels like one step forward and two steps back. But we’re in it for the long haul. We’re trying to build something that’s sustainable.”
“The city is giving us what they can,” added Robbins. “They have been supportive of us. They’re all for it. So far, we’ve been very successful (in) getting grant money to fund the project. But grant money isn’t as easy to find to support building projects.”
Currently, numerous outdoor tennis courts adorn the Lebanon County athletic landscape, at places like local high schools and public recreational parks similar to Optimist. But there are no local indoor facilities dedicated solely to tennis.
Indoor tennis courts would allow for all-weather play, year-round.
“Lebanon County has some beautiful parks,” said Robbins, who’s a professor and assistant tennis coach at Lebanon Valley College. “But when I drive by them, I can’t help but wonder why more people aren’t taking advantage of them. The reason we want to be at Optimist Park is that it’s an underused facility. But it’s easily accessible for anyone in the city. An indoor court will be a great asset for the city. It seems like a win-win.”
“We can do almost everything we want with an indoor facility,” Robbins continued. “You can grow the game if you have an indoor facility. Unlike Berks County or Dauphin County or Lancaster County, Lebanon County doesn’t have an indoor facility dedicated to tennis. It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity for Lebanon.”
Over the years, the popularity of tennis in Lebanon County has fluctuated.
While the number of recreational players seems to have remained relatively constant, fewer local competitive tournaments are currently being contested over the summer months. But right now, scholastic tennis at Lebanon County high schools appears to be on the upswing, both individually and collectively.
Recent numbers provided by the USTA seem to support the idea that the popularity of tennis in the central Pennsylvania portion of the Middle States Region – of which Lebanon County is a part – is growing.
So, it would seem that the work of LebValCTA is just as much about meeting demand as it is proliferating it.
“According to the USTA, tennis is the fastest growing recreational sport in America,” said Robbins. “One of the things we’re asked is, ‘Why tennis?’ People are familiar with sports like soccer and baseball. The answer is that there are already a wealth of opportunities in those sports in Lebanon.”
“The reason I’m optimistic is that I’ve seen it done elsewhere,” Robbins added. “There is no reason we can’t be successful when our neighbors have been successful. We’ve seen local businesses get behind it and natural models working. Getting as many people playing at a young age as we can, that’s where it starts. We want to at least introduce people to the game. I think when people see more people playing, they can see themselves playing.”
Like any outdoor activity, the physical, mental and social benefits of playing tennis are undeniable. Tennis is a game that can be played by individuals of any skill level, at any age.
“In terms of the athletic skills required to play tennis, it combines the movement of basketball with the concentration level and self-discipline of golf,” said Robbins, a 49-year-old resident of North Cornwall Township and a native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It truly is a lifetime sport, and you can play it at all different levels. It’s one sport men and women can play together on an equal playing field. Couples can play together.”
“It’s one of the things I know best,” concluded Robbins. “Mark and I grew up playing the game. We had children and we wanted to provide opportunities for them to play. The more we did it, the more we realized it would be nice to give opportunities for everyone to play.”
“We just believed in this mission and that this would be great for the city of Lebanon,” Robbins said. “It’s our way to give back to the region of Lebanon.”
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