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Making the leap to running a year-round training facility

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
The Elite Sports Academy hosts a winter soccer league for youth.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO The Elite Sports Academy hosts a winter soccer league for youth.

All of us could learn a thing or two from Steve Rau.

A retired high school information technology and business teacher, Rau is the brains and brawn behind Elite Sports Academy, an indoor and outdoor athletic training enterprise on Colebrook Avenue in Upper Milford Township.

Rau spent a number of years running baseball and softball camps and offering private clinics in parks in and around the Lehigh Valley before the fledgling entrepreneur decided it was time to open up a physical location.

“I have always been in coaching and playing ball. Eventually, I did have an online coaching site that I spent some time on the side building that up,” Rau said. “I said I was going to go brick-and-mortar about seven years ago. I was double-dipping, going to teach and working the business until about 9 each night and then waking up and going to teach.

“I decided to retire from teaching and do it full tilt. … It was a little bit of a risk to start this up. I had the job security and all that pension stuff with teaching, but I have always been more of a run-my-own-show kind of a guy.”

HOME OF HIS OWN

Rau’s first facility was a 9,000-square-foot leased space near West Tilghman Street in the Kuhnsville area.

When he reached the limitations of that space, which had a lot to do with the structure’s size and the price-per-square foot, Rau began shopping for a building of his own.

That search lead him to Upper Milford Township – a 14,000-square-foot former bowling alley sitting on about three acres of land – where he will celebrate his third anniversary in June.

ESA is known for offering indoor baseball, softball and soccer sports camps and clinics for travel, tournament and club teams, as well as for several local high school teams.

INDOOR BASEBALL DIAMOND

Rau said he bought the bowling alley after visiting the property three or four times.

“The building had one obstacle, the ceiling height. Then I just realized, ‘this does 90 percent of what I need it to do,’ ” he recalled.

In the end, Rau said, the building offered something else.

“The clear span aspect of it,” he said. “Most [businesses like his] are in warehouse spaces which have columns in them, 40 or 50 feet apart, and they impede some of the activities. We can set up a full baseball diamond. That is something most places don’t have. And then there’s the outdoor aspect of it.

“The property itself is a square three acres, and I was always looking at a future perspective in terms of what can you do outside; otherwise, you are looking at a very seasonal business. I wanted to add revenue in the other seven months.”

BATTING CAGES

Today, that year-round revenue is generated by outdoor batting cages that open in March and are used until November, based on the weather, Rau said.

Plus, ESA holds summer camps every week, all summer long.

“We continue with some of the other stuff, the classes and private lessons for baseball, softball and soccer, but that tapers off as the summer approaches,” he added.

YOUTH ASSOCIATION

The Upper Milford Youth Association has been an ESA client for seven years, according to UMYA President Matt Skekel, who said that UMYA baseball and softball coaches attended coaching clinics at Rau’s former location.

That relationship has evolved to include free preseason clinics for all UMYA baseball and softball teams, Skekel said. Plus, the association rents the batting cages as needed.

The youth association also holds soccer clinics throughout the winter season for all UMYA participants. And, many UMYA players in the 8-to-12 year-old range also take part in a winter three-on-three soccer league hosted by ESA.

“Steve Rau has been a big part of baseball and youth athletics in the Emmaus/East Penn School District area for a long time, and we have been working with Steve for a long time,” Skekel said.

PARTIES, EVENTS

Ted Razzis’ son plays on the ESA Avengers baseball team and takes batting lessons from Rau.

“These kids don’t listen to their fathers, but if Steve says it, it is like God says it,” Razzis said.

Rau said ESA also is popular for birthday parties, as he hosts as many as the facility’s schedule will allow.

He also does corporate events.

“We’ve had Home Depot, and we have had a couple of others,” he said. “I don’t go out and solicit them, but sometimes they will come to me and want to do something.”

RETROFIT FROM SCRATCH

When Rau bought the building, it was gutted and cleared out.

“I had to deal with some of the headaches of a building that was built in the 1960s, making sure it was going to suit most of our needs,” he said. “Plus, I could retrofit it to what I needed. Since it was gutted, I could do it from scratch.”

Rau said he spent a few hundred thousand dollars on renovations, including excavating the exterior.

“We worked on the outdoor area to make is more suitable for doing practice out there,” he said. “It’s over the length of a football field, just not as wide.”

POTENTIALLY WILL BE HIRING

Hours of operation have been dictated by demand, Rau said, with normal hours weekdays 4-9 p.m. and weekends 8 a.m.-8 p.m.

He also is open on occasional mornings when the space is rented for an activity, such as for preschool children.

Rau, who has seasonal part-time employees, indicated he may be hiring.

“It is just me,” he said. “That is hopefully going to change in the future. Weekends are long days. I have kids that watch the desk here, and there and independent instructors that come in and do softball and baseball and soccer instruction.”

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