The year before, the annual two-weekend tournament had to cancel its second weekend, which had been slated to kick off on March 13, just two days after the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus, causing the National Basketball Association to shut down. After originally deciding to carry on, tournament organizers abruptly canceled the weekend's events on March 12 and was issuing refunds by March 17, 2020, promising to see everyone next year.
They made good on that promise, scheduling the tournament for two weekends in May 2021.
Colorado Crossroads has called the convention center home since 1996. In that time, it's always been one of the largest tournaments on the club volleyball circuit, which gives athletes a chance to compete and train outside of the high school season. The tournament served as one of twelve qualifiers for the USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championship, and the winners of the Denver event automatically moved on to club volleyball’s most competitive stage, where recruiters could catch some of the nation's best athletes competing against each other and determine who might be scholarship-worthy.
As organizers planned the May 2021 tournament, they came up with COVID-19 precautions to keep the athletes safe. But as Colorado Crossroads got underway, it turned out that the tournament had dropped the ball. The organizers' rules included a provision that no guest under the age of sixteen would be allowed at the tournament — and that included infants. As a result, three breastfeeding coaches — Dixie Loveless, Tarah Olmstead and Nikita Eby — were told that they couldn't bring their babies in with them.
When Loveless defied that order and brought her infant to the first day of the tournament, she said that the organizers threatened her team with consequences if she did the same the next day. (Westword reached out to Loveless through Mountain Peak Volleyball but did not receive a response.)
“They clearly don’t see the example they are setting for these female athletes,” Loveless, a Utah-based coach with Mountain Peak, wrote on Facebook at the time. “Choose: family or coaching. That’s what they’re doing. They have no middle ground. They are teaching the girls that they can’t coach and be a mom. They are putting limits on us as women, and it’s bull.”
USA Volleyball apparently agreed. The tournament ended on May 16; twelve days later, the organization issued a statement: “In light of recent events and effective immediately, USA Volleyball has terminated its agreement with Colorado Crossroads Girls Junior National Qualifier. Effective 2022 and beyond, Colorado Crossroads will no longer be a qualifying event for the USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championship.”
"They are teaching the girls that they can’t coach and be a mom. They are putting limits on us as women, and it’s bull.”
After years of acing the event, organizers found themselves booted from club volleyball's most prestigious contest.
By 2021, though, events were slowly coming back. Then Georgia passed a bill restricting voting access in the state, and in response, Major League Baseball relocated its All-Star festivities to Denver in July. One of the big events would be MLB's Play Ball Park at the convention center, which packed the place for a week, creating the first solid month of business since the shutdown.
The Colorado Crossroads tournament two months earlier had brought a bump, but it ricocheted into bad press and bad feelings.
Unless the state or city has a public-health order in place, every event at the convention center determines its own COVID policies, according to Rich Carollo, the center's director of sales and marketing. In May 2021, that meant the tournament organizers were responsible for the policies. When the breastfeeding brouhaha broke out, then-tournament director Kay Rogness didn’t offer a comment.
Now Colorado Crossroads is back at the Colorado Convention Center with a new tournament director, Jim Miret, a Front Range Volleyball Club. He was at the 2021 event but wasn’t involved in tournament management; he declines to comment on whether he was hired for his current position after last year’s controversy.
“If we can kind of leave last year, I think that'd be great,” he says. “We're trying to create and rebuild this event. We're just trying to keep everybody focused on things moving forward.”
Even though the USAV disavowed Colorado Crossroads, the winners in each age division of the May 2021 tournament in Denver were allowed to compete at nationals in Indianapolis in July.
“We're trying to create and rebuild this event. We're just trying to keep everybody focused on things moving forward.”
After he became director, one of Miret's first steps was securing Colorado Crossroads a super-regional distinction for the Amateur Athletic Union’s 2022 Girls’ Volleyball Nationals, so that the tournament still had some prestige. Unlike USAV’s nationals, though, AAU nationals don’t require a team to win a regional competition in order to compete; any team can pay the entry fee and join. Teams that won a super-regional tournament that year get to play for free.
Although they aren't as well known as USAV nationals, Miret says AAU nationals have a great history in the sport. In fact, Jordyn Poulter, who was a setter for Team USA’s gold-medal team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, won bronze at the AAU nationals when, as a teen, she played for Front Range Volleyball, which has taken part in Crossroads for over a decade.
AAU "serves a lot of kids in a lot of different sports, and they do a fantastic job, so I was very excited that they were willing to partner with us,” Miret says.
Hoping to persuade teams to overlook the rockiness of last year, the tournament has worked to maintain its partnerships with businesses like Park Meadows Shopping Center, Lifeline Puppy Rescue and Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve, which tournament Director of Business Development Amy Conway connected with through Visit Denver, the city's tourism bureau.
In the past, Conway charged restaurants a $500 trade fee. This year, she’s charging $250. She's reduced booth fees, too, from $2,000 to $200. She says she lowered the rates partially because she can’t guarantee as much business for partners, but also because she wants to help them rebound from the pandemic.
“One, I want the tournament to kind of feel the same, and two, I know that these exhibitors have also struggled over the past two years, so I kind of wanted to give them an opportunity to get in front of some people, even if it's fewer than what they're expecting,” she says. “There's still going to be a good amount of people in downtown, so hopefully we're going to be a part of helping them for the month of March.”
"When I think of AAU, I think it should cost less," says Senobia Szuch, director for the Albuquerque Rebels Volleyball Club, which has come to Colorado Crossroads every year for over a decade.
Cost wasn't a concern for ARVC, but Szuch says that other club directors have mentioned it to her. She's more concerned about other losses. For ARVC, Colorado Crossroads was the place every team in the club could go. ARVC has both regional and national teams. The national teams travel to more competitive tournaments and USAV qualifiers so they can earn bids for nationals, while regional teams stick closer to home, traveling shorter distances without the aim of making it to nationals.
The club could have sent its regional teams to Colorado Crossroads and its national teams to Salt Lake City, which took Colorado Crossroads' place as a regional qualifier with the USAV nationals, but it was important to the club to have everyone together at least once a year, she says.
"For us, it was nice to have our national 18s and our 15s regional team at the same event, because they could help and they could support each other and we could see what's going on with each team," Szuch explains. "If we split them, we would never have an event that all of our teams could go to."
"We used to describe [Crossroads] to the younger ones as volleyball heaven," Szuch says. "There's so many courts and just so many people...it's incredible."
Denver Business Journal reported that the event brought an economic impact of $25 million.
“Just having talked to some of the local shops…they always mention they can always tell when Crossroads is here because these tall girls start walking all around the place,” Miret says. And after the lack of conventions over the past two years, he thinks that businesses that have managed to weather the pandemic appreciate the tournament’s impact and are glad to see it back.
It's not just the players who patronize local businesses. Miret has coached club volleyball for forty years, and says that teams used to travel with just one chaperone until about ten years ago, when parents started wanting to travel with their children.
That means that it's not just a bunch of kids running around downtown, but parents, too, who eat at restaurants and see the sights.
Carollo is hoping that the tournament has kicked off a return to some normalcy at the Colorado Convention Center. The facility laid off almost all of its staff after it became clear that the pandemic wouldn’t pass quickly, and had just started hiring people back when the Omicron variant emerged.
“We started having a little déjà vu there with the Omicron thing,” Carollo recalls. “I don't want to say it's gone away, but it certainly fell as rapidly as it came up. We're getting back in business and hosting events again, and it's good to see people in the building.”
Not enough people, though: The place is having trouble staffing up. Carollo says he has a marketing position open that would have generated forty or fifty applications before the pandemic; so far, he's only received ten. He doesn’t know why people aren’t applying, but guesses it could be because they have more options now and have seen how unstable the live-events industry can be.
“Everybody's got their reason,” he says. “Maybe people took the opportunity to go do something else. God bless them for that. And it's like, ‘Why do I want to come back when we’re still uncertain? What else can come to pass that I'm going to be losing my job?’”
But Carollo says this year looks much less uncertain than the last two already, with events on the calendar in most months. And July, September and October of 2021 were solid, he says. Still, the number of conventions and other gatherings aren't back to pre-pandemic levels, and some aren't seeing the number of attendees they did before. That hasn't been the case for live performances, especially concerts; most of those have sold out, he notes.
expansion slated to be finished in 2023; the project includes an 80,000-square-foot ballroom and a rooftop terrace. It's being funded through a combination of a 2015 bond passed by voters and Certificates of Participation that allow investors to buy a share of the improvements that will be paid back later.
Since there are currently no public health orders regarding masks in Denver or Colorado, some events aren’t requiring them; some are making masks mandatory. Still others are requiring vaccinations. Navigating pandemic requirements has been difficult for convention center staff because the situation changes so much based on government directives as well as the whims of each event.
“There's not a concert or event that goes by that we don't get a lot of inquiries on COVID requirements,” Carollo says. “People don't actually check the event or any of that, so you're like, ‘Okay, let me lead you to water. I’ll show you where that's at.’”
After the Colorado Convention Center announced that Chris Rock would be coming to the center's Bellco Theatre in June, Carollo received lots of questions about COVID protocol for the show.
“I'm like, 'I don't know what they are next week!'” Carollo exclaims. “You would literally go month to month.... I thought for sure we'd sail through the spring with that mask mandate…but now they took it away. Right now everything's sunny and bright. They find a new variant, and then everybody gets upset about it again.”
But after the nightmare of the last two years, the center is starting to wake up. “We’re planning for the future,” he says. “We’re building ahead, and that’s very different from what we’ve been doing the last two years.”
Colorado Crossroads is planning ahead, too, with aspirations of returning the tournament to its former numbers. But for now, Miret just hopes the tournament serves up a winning, if downsized, event that gives it something to build on and puts the controversy in the past.
And this year, Colorado Crossroads has no COVID restrictions — especially no age limits.