As parents who valued our own youth sports experiences and who now have three boys who enjoy a variety of sports we have learned a lot about Denver-area youth sports since moving here from Canada in 2011. The information below is provided to help other parents facing the same challenge. With so many ever-changing youth sports options in the Denver area, no one person can be fully aware of all of them. Those who are heavily involved in a single team or club may in some cases be even less aware of the full picture than those with kids involved with multiple organizations. Talking to other parents about their experiences and “new finds” has been very helpful for us but there are still some clubs, tryouts, camps and events that we have missed out on due to lack of awareness or logistical challenges.
NOTE: This document is a work in progress. Additional contact info and links will be added over time. Corrections and additions are always welcome!
Our Top Ten Lessons Learned about Colorado Youth Sports
- Variety vs. Specialization – Every possible type of youth sport seems to exist in the metro-Denver area so the challenge is not whether you can find an opportunity to participate but figuring out which activities and which level, location, club, coach, etc. is right for you. With so many options and so many different organizations providing year-round opportunities in almost all sports, kids and parents quickly face a dilemma of whether to specialize in one or more sports or allocate their time (and money) across a wider variety of activities.
- Schools vs. Clubs – While high school sports of all types are a huge focus in the Denver area, public schools sports at the elementary and middle school levels are minimal. Most of the action for younger ages takes place through a complex web of non-profit and for-profit clubs and then expands into the schools during high school. In some sports, like soccer and hockey, the top players sometimes do not even play for high school teams.
- For-Profit Clubs – For-profit sports clubs are plentiful and always have another in-season or off-season program that can keep your family involved year round. They also provide a valuable option for busy families who may not have the time to get involved in coaching or administration as volunteers. Each family must figure out the right balance between the available options since it is a truly rare for-profit club that will tell your son/daughter it is time to take a break. The dynamic between kids/parents and the club and its coaches also changes when the families are significant customers generating revenue for the club rather than just families with kids being coached by a volunteer. For example, a for-profit club may have to cut 1-2 players from a basketball team if it has 11-12 kids try out (since that number is not ideal for allocating playing time) but as soon as there are 16-18 kids available the club may just create a 2nd team to increase participation and maximize revenue, even if that second team is not as competitive.
- Varying Motivations – With so many youth sports options in the Denver area, the motivations that cause families, coaches and club administrators to be involved in also vary greatly. Some are trying to recreate and extend the positive sports experiences of their own youth while others are trying to make amends for their own youth sports experiences that they perceive as having fallen short. Some see youth sports as a fun experience in the moment that may or may not continue in the future while others see youth sports as a path to high school success or securing a college scholarship or a professional sports career. Some prioritize those available closest to their home or school or choose based on affordability while others are willing to travel great distances or see no expense as too great. Finding like-minded families, coaches and clubs seems to be key to a positive experience as each of these motivations can be taken to the extreme at the expense of all others.
- Weather – Colorado’s highly variable but generally great weather means that you may be able to have an outdoor baseball or soccer practice on Super Bowl Sunday or have the same practice snowed out in May. Most outdoor sports shut down or slow down in July (or move to the mountains) when temperatures are hottest so more of their activities take place earlier or later. As a result, the overlap between various sports seasons seems to be even more extreme than in locations with more traditional four seasons. While Colorado’s climate supports more days of outdoor activity than many locations farther north (Minnesota, North Dakota, Canada!), many in the Denver-area still look enviously at states like Arizona, Texas, Florida and California where soccer, baseball, etc. can be played outside year-round. This has led to more demand for indoor facilities (usually located in strip malls or warehouse-type structures) and team trips to warmer states during the winter months.
- Travel – By 2nd or 3rd grade, many Denver-area leagues will have games taking place up to an hour or so away from your home location and the distances generally increase as kids get older. Despite the variety of options available in the local area we also were surprised that clubs (and parents) send teams of young kids to tournaments all over the state (Steamboat Springs, Grand Junction, Greeley) and to other states such as Arizona, California, New York (e.g. Cooperstown) at great expense when the Denver area has lots of strong teams in each age group as well as older teams that teams could “play up” against for tougher competition. This is true not only for baseball, where winter weather is often better in more southern states, but also for indoor sports such as basketball and volleyball.
- Impact of Pro Sports – Unlike where we grew up in Canada there seem to be many more former professional/high-level athletes in the Denver-area acting as youth club directors, coaches, trainers or just regular parents. While this can be exciting for some kids (and their parents) it also seems to increase the number of kids (and their parents) who see similar achievements as realistic. Living in an area with seven professional sports teams, numerous college teams, and hundreds of high school teams would seem to be a great bonus for sports-loving families but limited time and funds often means that families must choose between youth sports and attending these other events.
- Constant Change – Denver-area youth sports is becoming more of a business with both for-profit and non-profit clubs focusing on market share, economies of scale, and boosting their competitive success. As a result, the landscape of clubs, teams and coaches is much more dynamic than in a location where there are only 1-2 clubs for each sport and where the focus is on maximizing participation or keeping programs affordable. It is not uncommon for clubs to merge (e.g. four basketball clubs joining to form Colorado Connect) or go out of business or disband (e.g. defunct Next Level Basketball club led by ex-Duke player Marty Clark). A few Denver-area clubs now have territories that span multiple cities (e.g. Colorado Storm soccer), states (Colorado Premier Basketball in both Colorado and Utah) or even countries (Barcelona Elite soccer).
- Uniforms – The days of clubs having a set of uniforms that they lend out to players year after year is over (perhaps with a rare exception such as Colorado Premier Basketball). Joining a new team or club almost inevitably means the purchase of a new uniform specifically for your child, along with optional, or in some cases mandatory, related gear such as equipment bags, helmets, socks, etc. The number of perfectly good youth sports uniforms hanging in Denver-area closets must be astronomical and it takes a lot of effort and coordination to try and reduce costs in this area.
- Facilities – While Colorado High Schools tend to have great and expansive indoor and outdoor facilities (including dedicated wrestling rooms, swimming pools, tracks, etc.) we were surprised that so many metro-area Elementary schools (especially in Cherry Creek School District) have tiny, carpeted gyms that are barely suitable for youth basketball or other sports. It was also surprising to see the number of area clubs that have their own indoor and outdoor facilities and to see stand-alone sports facilities like Gold Crown Fieldhouse (basketball and volleyball) and Panorama Sports Institute (basketball and indoor field training, previously known as D1 Sports Training), Arapahoe Sports Center (soccer and baseball/softball).
Availability of Youth Sports
It has been our experience that if a sport exists, there is a youth program for it in the Denver metro area! This seems to be a result of having a sufficiently large (and active) population, the mountains and climate to support outdoor winter sports in addition to the usual summer/indoor sports, and an influx of newcomers from other locations that have brought their interest and expertise in less common sports with them. As a result, we know of great youth opportunities in all of the following sports: basketball, baseball, football, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, skiing, gymnastics, swimming, cross-country running and parkour. Weather in the Denver-area is usually very conducive to outdoor sports but with occasional issues due to extreme wet/winter weather on certain days in Oct-May and extreme heat on certain days in June-Aug.
School Sports vs. Non-Profit and For-Profit Club Sports
In the parts of Canada where we grew up, certain sports were organized primarily through the schools from middle school to high school (e.g. volleyball, basketball) and others primarily took place only outside of the schools (e.g. baseball, gymnastics, skiing). A few fell somewhere in between (soccer, rugby, hockey). This seems to be changing in all areas and the Denver area is no exception. As a result the landscape is quite different from what we were familiar with less school sports, and more club sports, for elementary and middle school kids and an amazing variety of both high school and club sports options for high school aged kids.
School Sports – Our impression is that organized elementary school sports teams and leagues are virtually non-existent in Denver-area public schools, whereas there are some organized teams and leagues within local private schools (e.g. catholic school elementary basketball league). However kids from the same school may end up playing together through club options described in more detail below.
At the middle school level, the situation seems to vary by school district. Cherry Creek School Board, our home district, offers track and field, boy’s and girl’s basketball, girl’s volleyball and wrestling but no other sports. The district provides student coaches, students attending after-school practices can take the late bus home and bus transportation is also provided to away games. Each sport offered has a short (4-6 week) and non-overlapping season and all students are often welcome with no “cuts” so even kids focused on these particular sports tend to also play elsewhere. Some private schools seem to offer a broader range of middle school sports while other public districts do not seem to offer any.
At the high school level, the situation is very different. Schools seem to offer almost every sport imaginable with freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity teams and a mix of staff and community coaches. The majority of sports are coordinated by the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSSA) but additional sports such as mountain-biking and rugby operate outside of this organization. Where do the schools find athletes for all of these teams if these sports have never been offered in school before? From the non-profit and for-profit clubs described below. The degree of coordination between high school sports programs and the various youth programs in their area can vary widely. In a high school with a strong reputation and a large-enough catchment area, such coordination is not necessary to fill strong high school teams but it seems to increase the burden on families to navigate more wide-ranging club options. Some kids may not try a sport if their parents have not managed to figure out a feasible option and others may drop out of a sport earlier after having a bad experience that could have been improved with greater coordination.
Club Sports – The gap left by a lack of elementary and middle school sport programs seems to have been filled by various club teams – many of which still use school facilities to deliver their programs! These clubs can be further divided based on whether they are non-profit and for-profit and whether they focus on a single sport or multiple sports.
1. Non-Profit Multi-sport Clubs such as the YMCA, various municipal recreation authorities (Aurora, Greenwood Village, South Suburban, Highlands Ranch, Denver, etc.) and member clubs of the Arapahoe Youth League (Creek Bruins, Littleton Thunder, Highlands Ranch/Lone Tree Warriors, Parker Hawks, South Jeffco, South Aurora Spartans, Castle Rock Raptors, Denver Eagles) and Dakota Ridge Youth League that offer a variety of sports programs for elementary and middle school ages.
2. Non-Profit Sport-specific Clubs such as Colorado Storm (soccer) or Real Soccer or Rev Up All-Stars (Aurora-area basketball)
Both types of clubs rely on a mix of paid/volunteer central staff and coaches. Those that are more reliant on volunteers and who own their own facilities or have free/discounted access to facilities tend to have the lowest costs while others can still be quite expensive.
3. For-Profit Sport-Specific Clubs – The Denver-area has proven to have sufficient interest in additional sports opportunities to support a number of for-profit businesses that provide youth sports opportunities. All of these seem to be focused on a single sport and they vary in whether they own their own facilities or rent from others. Even within these clubs you may find a mix of paid and volunteer coaches and administrators with the corresponding impact on cost. Examples include Slammers (baseball), Elevation (basketball) with many more described below.
Arapahoe Youth League Overview
Our kids have participated in AYL baseball, basketball and lacrosse. AYL also offers football, softball and volleyball. AYL has operated for more than 45 years and each of its seven clubs has its own geographic territory and other unique characteristics.
Creek – The entire Creek AYL territory corresponds to the catchment area of one high school – Cherry Creek High School. While CCHS is a huge high school and does very well in many sports, the number of youth playing AYL sports seems to be less than clubs such as Hawks and Warriors where there is more new housing development and younger subdivisions attracting more young families. Creek elementary schools generally have small, carpeted gyms that are far from ideal for youth basketball.
Thunder (Littleton) – Like Creek, this club seems to have a shrinking population base of students compared to 10-20 years ago as new families locate farther south. In contrast to Creek, gym availability and quality for AYL basketball has seemed to be better. Littleton territory is very wide extending from Holly St on east (next to Creek) and as far west as the 470/Ken Caryl area but not that far north-south since it is bordered by Eagles to north and Warriors to the south.
Warriors (Highlands Ranch & Lone Tree) – Due to the large numbers of families with young children in this area Warriors tends to have a large number of teams. The club also operates its own indoor facility near 470/Santa Fe that offers indoor baseball/softball cages and a Warriors uniform shop.
Hawks (Parker & Elizabeth) – Similar to Warriors, the Hawks territory has a large number of young families and some great new indoor and outdoor facilities to support many teams.
Raptors (Castle Rock) – Castle Rock is another rapidly-growing suburb area but has less AYL teams that Warriors or Hawks, perhaps because of its location farther south.
Eagles (Denver) – This club is located farthest north of all the AYL clubs, covering the south part of the City of Denver with some overlap with Creek. Both indoor and outdoor facilities tend to be a bit older than in the more southern suburbs.
Spartans (South Aurora) – This club is the farthest east and also has far fewer teams than Hawks or Warriors – perhaps because more youth play in Aurora Recreation leagues that don’t require as much travel.
Sport by Sport Overview
Below are some thoughts on various sports with which we have some familiarity.
Overview: Basketball is a fairly popular sport in the Denver-area with plenty of options for both boys and girls. Participation amongst boys is higher at all ages but Colorado seems to produce more female NCAA players than male. Most beginners play through the YMCA and local recreation authorities (Aurora, Denver, South Suburban, etc.). As early as 2nd grade, more competitive teams compete through regional club leagues like Arapahoe Youth League (AYL) or private clubs that place teams in various weekend tournaments or leagues. These private clubs typically have open tryouts a few times a year in Aug/Sept for Fall, Oct for Winter and Mar/April for Spring/Summer. Gold Crown Foundation, an organization founded by former Denver Nugget Bill Hanzlik, plays a particularly influential role by offering two area-wide youth leagues (one specifically for high school feeder teams from 4th-8th grades with games on Sundays from Jan-March and a second open league with primarily club teams with games on Thursdays and Saturdays Dec-March) and by owning and operating a huge indoor facility in Lakewood where many basketball (and volleyball) events take place. At the most competitive levels, multiple area clubs send their teams to various local weekend tournaments that rent out local schools as well as occasionally to out-of-state tournaments (usually in the spring and early summer to locations such as Portland, Oregon and Las Vegas). A couple of clubs (e.g. Colorado Premier girls, Billups boys) have teams playing in national spring leagues sponsored my major shoe companies.
Youth Leagues: Arapahoe Youth League (Nov-Feb season), South Suburban, YMCA (fall, winter, spring seasons), Gold Crown (Jan-Mar season), JAM (fall and spring leagues), Just Play Sports (fall, winter and spring 3×3 and 5×5 leagues)
Key Tournaments: RiseUpSports, Power2Play Sports, MAYB (Mid America Youth Basketball). These tournaments are open to any team paying the registration fee so while the majority of teams are from club programs you will also see school teams and parent-organized teams participate. At the youngest ages it is often necessary to combine teams across multiple grades into one division. We were surprised that many weekend basketball tournaments not only charge each team to participate but then charge an attendance fee for parents or anyone else to watch.
Key Clubs: Billups Elite (run by ex-NBA Chauncey Billups and his CU teammate Ronnie DeGray), Colorado Premier Basketball (run by ex-NBA Keith Van Horn, started with girls teams and now offers both girls and boys in Denver metro area, Western Slope and Utah), Colorado Hawks (non-profit based in Aurora), Colorado Chaos (focused on older players 14+), Colorado Miners (with primary location in North Denver, Elevation (run by ex-CSU player & New Zealand pro Matt Barnett with primary location at the Institute in Highlands Ranch), Rev Up All-Stars (all-volunteer org led by St. Mark’s Sanders based out of Aurora), Mile High Centennials (run by Armando Carrillo Jr. with primary location out of Denver Tech Center), Hardwood Evolution/Elite (relatively new, run by Derek Griffin out of Greenwood Athletic Club in Greenwood Village), Boykins Basketball Club (run by 5’5″ ex-NBA player Earl Boykins in Douglas County), EJ Hoops (girls-only club run by ex-NBA player Ervin Johnson), Colorado Connect (amalgamation of four earlier clubs), North Metro Ballers, Colorado Basketball Club (top female-only club), Colorado Cardinals (Lone-Tree Area), Basketball Tao Dojo (south part of City of Denver), Colorado Titans (formerly Boulder Titans)
Current Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Reggie Jackson (Palmer HS/OK Thunder), Derrick White (Legend HS/UCCS/CU/San Antonio Spurs), Josh Perkins (Gonzaga), Justin Bassey (Colorado Academy/Harvard), De’Ron Davis (Overland HS/Indiana University), Ronnie Harrell (Denver East/Creighton), Erik Garcia (Grandview HS/Wofford/MZT Skopje), Michaela Onyenwere (Grandview 2000-pt scorer, Colorado Miss Basketball/UCLA)
Retired Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Chauncey Billups (George Washington HS/CU/NBA, Mark Randall (Cherry Creek HS/Kansas/NBA), Tom Chambers (Boulder/Utah/NBA), Joe Barry Caroll (East HS/Purdue/NBA)
Who is Gold Crown and How Do Their Two Winter Leagues Differ?
Gold Crown Team Tryout List
Overview: The primary baseball season typically takes place from March-early July but a few tournaments run later, fall leagues are available and many spring teams start indoor workouts in January. We were surprised that tryouts for spring baseball teams primarily take place in July as soon as the previous season has been completed (with additional tryouts during the fall/winter to fill empty spots. While baseball is popular enough to offer a good range of options within every geographic section of Metro-Denver as kids get older they will quickly find themselves traveling longer distances for games – Steamboat Springs, Grand Junction, Greeley or even Omaha or Phoenix. Leagues are organized by skill level ranging from Majors to AAA to AA.
Youth Leagues: Arapahoe Youth League (6U to middle-school running from March-June, divided into regional member clubs and multiple levels of competition at each age level), Southeast Denver Baseball League (baseball and softball league based in Southeast part of City of Denver but with some overlap with AYL territory), Centennial Youth Baseball-Softball Association (similar to Southeast Denver but covers further south territory, affiliated with Babe Ruth League and with later season than AYL from May-July. CYBSA includes but is not limited to serving the youth of Centennial, Greenwood Village, Englewood, Aurora, Parker, Foxfield and unincorporated Arapahoe County and the league deals with 6 different municipalities for the fields), South Suburban (covers south Denver suburbs like Littleton, Centennial and also overlaps with AYL territory), YMCA, Dry Creek Baseball (Littleton/Englewood/Centennial and the only official Little League affiliate in the south Denver area)
Youth Tournaments: There are three competing organizations – Triple Crown, Rocky Mountain USSSA, CABO, each with their own tournament schedule, ranking systems and rules. Tournaments run from March to July with a few more in the fall.
Key Baseball-Specific Clubs: Slammers (for-profit, owns a facility in Centennial), GameDay (faith-based not-for-profit, owns indoor facility in Parker), Colorado Khaos (owns indoor facility in Littletown), Bardo’s (based in Parker). Each clubs offers many different teams at different age levels and may have a mix of non-parent and parent coaches.
Retired Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Roy Halladay (Arvada West, Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies), Goose Gossage (Colorado Springs, 2008 MLB HOF), Danny Jackson (Aurora/MLB All-Star), Brad Lidge (Cherry Creek HS).
CABA Colorado Tryout Directory
Overview: Soccer is clearly one of the leading youth sports in Colorado for boys and girls both in terms of both participation and producing top-level talent. As kids move into competitive leagues the club programs are highly influential and some play in national leagues where club demands prevent players from also playing for their high schools.
Youth Leagues: South Suburban, YMCA
Key Clubs: Real Colorado (Centennial), Colorado Rapids (north-Denver focus), Colorado Storm (Fort Collins, Metro North, Metro South, Castle Rock), Skyline Soccer (South-Denver focus, popular at youngest age groups), Colorado Rush (Littleton), Fort Collins Soccer Club/Arsenal Colorado, Barcelona Elite
Key Facilities: Many of the clubs listed below have their own outdoor and/or indoor facilities but also have permits from local municipalities for park fields.
Current Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Mallory Pugh (Mountain Vista HS, USWNT), Lindsey Horan (Golden HS/Paris St. Germain/USWNT)
The Top 5 Colorado Youth Soccer Clubs (Youth1 Website?)
Overview: Football participation seems to be declining and shifting from traditional full-contact football to flag football leagues, particularly at younger ages, but full-contact club football remains as a feeder into prominent high school teams.
Youth Leagues: Arapahoe Youth League, National Flag Football – Colorado
Key Clubs: AYL Member clubs
Current Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Christian McCaffrey (Valor/Stanford/NFL), Vincent Jackson (Colorado Springs/UNC/NFL)
Retired Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Matt Hasselback (Boulder/Boston College/NFL), LenDale White (South/Chatfield HS, USC, NFL), Dave Logan (Colorado)
Overview: As in most locations, youth hockey is constrained by the number of available rinks and thus travel times for practice and games can be longer than other sports and early-morning/late-night ice time is not unusual. While Colorado is a relatively strong hockey state compared to many others, hockey is not nearly as popular here as in Canada so costs for equipment, ice time, etc. all seem to be higher. Girls hockey is fairly rare in Colorado but some girls team do exist. A total of 17 native Coloradans have ever played in the National Hockey League, five during the 2017-18 NHL season.
Key Clubs: Junior Pioneers (DU), Littleton Hockey Association, Arapahoe Warriors Youth Hockey, Colorado Thunderbirds, Arvada Hockey Association
Key Facilities: Family Sports Arena, The Edge Ice Arena, Big Bear Ice Arena (Lowry), Joy Burns Arena/Magness Arena (DU), Sport Stable (formerly Boulder Valley Ice and Indoor Sports)
Current Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Seth Jones (NHL), Nick Shore (DU/NHL), Drew Shore (DU/NHL), Jaccob Slavin (Colorado College/NHL), Brandon Carlo (Colorado Springs), Brendan Lemieux (Denver), Ben Bishop (born in Denver but grew up in St. Louis)
Overview: Lacrosse seems to be one of the fastest growing youth sports with both a fall and spring season in Colorado. The success of the DU Pioneer men’s lacrosse team (2015 NCAA Champions) and Denver’s two professional lacrosse teams, the Denver Outlaws and Colorado Mammoth, as well as an influx of lacrosse families from eastern U.S. have all contributed to this growth.
Youth Leagues: Arapahoe Youth League, Colorado Youth Lacrosse Association
Key Clubs: Denver Lacrosse Club, Denver Elite (affiliated with DU Lacrosse),
Overview: Rugby remains a niche youth sport in Colorado but there are clubs located throughout the Metro Denver area and beyond. Both spring and fall leagues operate in the metro area although spring seems to be the busier season. Rugby is not a CH
Youth Leagues: Rugby Colorado Try League
Key Clubs: Glendale Raptors Rugby Academy, Stapleton/Park Hill Wolfpack Rugby, Boulder, Thornton,
Key Facilities: Infinity Park, Glendale (only dedicated rugby-only facility in country)
Current Well-Known Denver-Area Players: Ben Pinkelman (Cherry Creek HS, 2016 US Olympic Rugby 7s Team), Jillian Potter (2016 US Olympic Rugby 7’s Team)
Overview: Colorado is blessed with an abundance of great youth learn-to-ski and competitive ski programs.
Learn to Ski Programs: Offered at every ski hill in both single-day and multi-day/multi-week programs – e.g. Winter Park Ski & Ride School, Breckenridge Bombers, Eskimo Ski & Board Club (provides transportation for kids from Metro Denver to Winter Park on most Saturdays)
Key Competitive Clubs: Winter Park Resort Competition Center, Team Breck Sports Club, Ski & Snowboard Club Vail, Team Summit Colorado (Copper Mountain), etc.
Overview: Many Colorado neighborhoods have community pools and pool swim clubs that are popular during June and July with weekly meets – some on Fridays and some on Saturdays. High School swimming is also popular with many schools such as Cherry Creek HS, Regis Jesuit HS, having their own pool.
Key Clubs: University of Denver Hilltoppers (founded in 1955), Colorado Stars (Southeast Denver Metro Area), Aces Swim Club (Centennial)
Current Well-Known Denver-Area Swimmers: Missy Franklin (Regis Jesuit/Stanford/US Olympian), Clark Smith (Regis Jesuit/US Olympian)
Retired Well-Known Denver-Area Swimmers: Amy Van Dyken (Colorado Springs/CSU/Olympian)
Colorado Swim Club Directory
Parkour: Apex School of Movement, Path Movement, Ninja Brand Parkour Gym
Cross-Country Running: Colorado Coyotes (Littleton)
Fitness/Speed/Agility Training: Sterling’s Team Speed (University/County Line, apparently Mallory Pugh trained here as a youth soccer player), Panorama Sports Institute (Highlands Ranch), Elite Speed Sports Performance (3 locations in Denver area), Parisi Colorado (Littleton)
Bouldering: Denver Bouldering Club