As professional sports take the valley by storm, youth programs are teaching grit and good sportsmanship — and creating tomorrow’s stars
The Las Vegas Valley is in the midst of a full-blown sports revolution. National pro sports organizations that used to snub Las Vegas have rolled into town with a vengeance, and they’ve flipped our sports identity from laughable to legitimate virtually overnight.
After countless years with zero major professional sports franchises (but dozens of failed minor-league outfits), we’ve picked up four in the past five years alone: the NHL’s Golden Knights, the WNBA’s Aces, the United Soccer League’s Lights, and (soon) the NFL’s Raiders. And, if you believe the rumors, the NBA, Major League Baseball, and Major League Soccer have the moving trucks packed and the engines idling. We’re adding “sports” to our endless list of “Capital of the World” monikers.
This revolution isn’t just happening in professional sports. Across the valley, tens of thousands of kids are stretching their muscles in myriad athletic pursuits. Bringing them together are dozens of organizations dedicated to particular sports, but also devoted to the larger goal of encouraging teamwork, sportsmanship, and determination.
They’re having a ball
Vegas United Volleyball Club
It’s a typically crisp winter evening in Las Vegas, but on this particular Friday in a strip mall near Valley View and Spring Mountain, the action is hot inside the Vegas United Volleyball Club training facility. Three teams of teenage girls occupy three of the four volleyball courts. For two hours, the 30 or so players will practice serving, setting, digging, and spiking. They’ll do so in various spirited drills overseen by several coaches, and then square off in some casual but competitive scrimmages.
The fourth court? That one is occupied by a group of nine youngsters — six boys, three girls, ranging in age from about 5 to 10 — who are at the midpoint of an eight-session youth academy. Each weekly session lasts about 90 minutes, with academy instructors teaching the basics of volleyball. On this particular night, knocking the ball over the net is cause for exuberant celebration.
“It’s a great introduction to the game and an easy commitment,” Robert Rios, one of Vegas United’s three co-directors, says of the youth academy. “And if your kid happens to catch a spark, you can try another session before you start seeking out the next level of participation in our program, which is some form of team.”
Rios and partners DJ Goodard and Karissa Guthrie formed Vegas United in September 2016, merging three club teams that each was separately operating. Since then, the nonprofit club has built a roster of more than 500 boys and girls who compete on teams that range in age from 12 to 18. Within each age group are multiple squads that compete at various levels. For instance, there are “local” teams that solely compete in tournaments around town; regional teams that travel to competitions in Southern California; and national teams that battle some of the top club programs all over the country.
Rios and Guthrie say many of Vegas United’s more advanced athletes have gone on to play at the college level, with both boys and girls alumni even competing in the NCAA’s Division I Final Four. Such success stories are gratifying, but just as gratifying is seeing a 7-year-old girl show up to the first youth-academy session as a timid newcomer and finish two months later with a confident understanding of fundamentals — and an enthusiasm that leads her to beg her parents to do it again.
“We focus on the kids and on the family,” Rios says. “That’s our hashtag: Family. We’re very focused on the holistic experience. We care a lot about academics, we bring in college admission counselors, and we have a recruiting platform that’s part of our services for our families.
“Parents are structuring their children’s lives now more than ever, so (volleyball is) just another activity, another box they can check as we’re trying to create these very complete people,” Rios says. “And our mission statement really is, ‘Creating life-altering possibilities via volleyball.’ So we get that volleyball is just the tool. What we really want is our kids to have access to an extraordinary life. And if this can be part of it, fantastic.” (vegasunitedvc.com)
Capture the flag
Henderson Flag Football League
With sobering evidence linking tackle football with increased risk of brain trauma, more parents have become reluctant to let their kids strap on a helmet and hit the gridiron. Still, football remains one of America’s most popular sports, one that produces dozens of stars whom youngsters are going to idolize and imitate. There’s also no denying that football instills character traits such as toughness, perseverance, and teamwork.
So how do you get the best of both worlds? Many parents have found the answer in flag football, which has exploded in popularity in recent years. Multiple flag football organizations have popped up across the valley, with one of the first being the Henderson Flag Football League. Launched in 1997 as a fall-only league, the HFFL added a spring session several years ago, giving boys and girls ages 5-14 an opportunity to sling the pigskin virtually year-round.
League president Steve Lown says the nonprofit organization is constructed to accommodate as many as 72 teams per season, with each squad usually composed of 10 players. The fall season frequently reaches capacity (roughly 700 kids), while the spring session attracts about 600 kids, all of whom compete in either recreational or competitive (“open”) divisions. Additionally, with girls flag football now recognized as a competitive high school sport, the HFFL recently added an all-girls 16-year-old division.
“What we’ve heard is that parents prefer to keep their kids in flag a little longer because they’re still learning the fundamentals and the rules,” Lown says. “The kids aren’t getting beat up, and parents don’t have to worry about head injuries — at least not as much. There still could be some incidental contact, but for the most part there isn’t any contact in our game, especially at the younger ages.”
Besides the safety factor, Lown says HFFL’s ongoing popularity can be traced to the fact that all fall and spring games are played at the same location (Heritage Park). Also, because the league is nonprofit, all leftover funds following expenditures are used to improve the player and parent experiences. For instance, each season culminates with two teams from each division competing in a “Super Bowl” game, and that day’s festivities include a large, league-sponsored picnic for players and families.
Another plus for the HFFL: It’s directly affiliated with the NFL, so the reversible jerseys given to each player feature the name and logo of actual NFL teams. You can guess which team is now in high demand in each division. “The coaches get to pick their team names, and it used to be the Raiders were chosen, but not that often,” Lown says. “Now, every division has a Raiders!” (hendersonflag.com)
Just kickin’ it
Southern Nevada Soccer Association
Youth soccer is a big deal in Southern Nevada. From North Las Vegas to Summerlin to Boulder City, if you pass by a vast expanse of grass (or anything that resembles grass) on a Saturday, odds are you’ll see a youth soccer match.
It’s certainly easy to understand the sport’s appeal: All you need is a ball, an open space, a couple of goals and some shin guards, and you’ve got a game. But a recent addition to our soccer community has provided a significant jolt of energy to the youth game: the arrival of the Las Vegas Lights.
Following years of rumors that professional soccer was heading to Las Vegas, it became reality last year when the United Soccer League (think the equivalent of Triple-A baseball) awarded the city a franchise. During their inaugural season in 2018, the Lights regularly drew large, energetic crowds to Cashman Field — and those crowds featured thousands of youth players who now have the opportunity to learn the nuances of the game by watching highly skilled professionals right in their backyard.
“UNLV on both the men’s and women’s side do a good job of producing quality teams and having a strong soccer culture,” says Key Reid, president of the Southern Nevada Soccer Association. “But to have our kids be able to go and watch a high-level professional match, it’s fantastic for their development, and great for the soccer culture in Las Vegas.”
The Henderson-based SNSA was founded in 1998, when it was known as the Henderson United Youth Soccer Club, and it’s currently the valley’s largest soccer organization. Depending on the season, the SNSA’s recreational component serves 2,500 to 5,000 boys and girls from ages 5-12, with roughly 1,000 additional kids playing for competitive boys and girls teams under the Heat FC brand.
The Heat FC squads compete in the Elite Clubs National League, which comprises boys and girls clubs from acros the country, with Heat FC being the league’s lone Nevada representative. Within that league, Heat FC teams in age divisions ranging from 12-18 compete in a conference against teams from the Phoenix and Southern California areas. Last year, Reid says two Heat FC squads won the conference, and this year, the U14 and U15 girls teams are ranked in the top 10 nationally by Top Rank Soccer. “Our goal for our most competitive players is for them to play college soccer,” Reid says. “Many of the kids who leave our program are the first kids in their families to go to college … and if you look at our top teams over many, many years, any child who makes it through our program and wants to continue playing has an opportunity to play college soccer.
“That’s the main reason we participate in the ECNL, because in addition to the conference games, there are national events which are a mecca for college soccer recruiting. We’ll go to those events, and there will be 75 college soccer coaches on our sideline watching our kids play. The national exposure our kids get by playing in that league is priceless.”
Equally priceless is the presence of the Lights, whose community outreach includes attempting to grow the game through partnerships with SNSA and similar local youth soccer leagues.
“This isn’t half-baked semipro soccer,” Reid says of the Lights. “These are real professionals — either young players who have been loaned out from a Major League Soccer team or from a first-division team from another country, or former top-level pros who are working to try to get back. And to have highly respected soccer people like (owner) Brett Lashbrook and (manager) Eric Wynalda here in Las Vegas, building a professional franchise is so valuable for the youth player who aspires to play at a higher level.” (snsasoccer.com)
Par for the course
Southern Nevada Junior Golf Association
As a youngster, Nicole Dutt-Roberts and her three siblings would spend their afternoons hacking their way around Las Vegas golf courses as members of the Southern Nevada Junior Golf Association. This was the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Dutt-Roberts recalls association membership topped out at about 40, including barely a dozen girls. Today, the organization boasts nearly 500 members, and its current director of fund development is none other than Dutt-Roberts.
After some trying years that followed the 2015 folding of The First Tee of Southern Nevada — a youth golf organization that merged with the SNJGA around 2000 — the SNJGA is once again providing local kids the opportunity to learn not only the fundamentals of golf, but the ancillary life skills inherent to the sport.
While the competitive aspect of the SNJGA is for golfers aged 12-18, the organization embraces younger kids through its First on Course/Learn to Play Golf program, led by SNJGA Director of Instruction Kerri Clark. For $75, youths from about age 6-13 can take part in four group lessons that are held at courses throughout the valley and taught by professional instructors, including Dutt-Roberts.
When she got involved with the First on Course program in 2017, Dutt-Roberts says she had two students. Today, that number is as high as 17.
“Some of my students are returning, so now I’ve created an intermediate class,” she says. “I’ve got one student who has a lot of potential. He was someone who never held a golf club, but he’s very coordinated and I can see him moving forward. Of course, some of the kids are just out there for fun, and that’s okay. Our goal is to introduce golf to them and have it be something they play for a lifetime or with family. Or if they develop a knack and a passion for it, they can turn into regular players and possibly someday get a golf scholarship. Because that’s the other goal — scholarship.”
As anyone who has swung a driver or attempted to sink a putt can attest, golf can be the most frustrating of sports. But through that frustration, young kids learn important lessons in patience, resolve and, most importantly, mental toughness.
“Golf is very mental,” Dutt-Roberts says. “You have to have a good frame of mind and be a positive thinker — and I know those attributes apply to other sports as well, but golf is on a different level. If you’re mentally strong and tough on the golf course, that means a lot.
“I just finished an adult clinic today, and one of things I said to them was, ‘You have to believe you can. If you don’t believe you can, then you won’t.’”
Another component to the SNJGA is a partnership with Youth on Course, a nonprofit organization that’s headquartered in Pebble Beach, California. Anyone who is an SNJGA member automatically qualifies for the Youth on Course program, which allows members to play a round at any of 25 Southern Nevada courses for $5 or less.
Not a bad deal, especially considering that in golf, the only way to hit that perfect shot consistently is to practice, practice, practice.
“For me, as a kid, it was all about those couple of shots you hit just perfectly that were so effortless — that’s the addictive part of golf,” Dutt-Roberts says. “You want to feel that again — you want to hit that pure shot and feel that excitement. And in golf, you don’t always get that, so you’re always striving to get better.” (southernnevadajuniorgolf.com)
Vegas Golden Knights Skating Academy
Hockey? In the desert? It’ll never work! Suffice it to say, it didn’t take long to body check that theory into the boards. Indeed, we turned into a full-fledged hockey town pretty much the second the puck dropped on the Vegas Golden Knights’ inaugural season.
To be clear, though, when we say “hockey town,” we’re not just talking about sold-out games at T-Mobile Arena, black-and-gold merch from head to toe, or knowing how to spell Marchessault. No, to become a true hockey town means being totally immersed in the sport, starting with instilling passion in kids at the youngest of ages.
And so we present the following scene from Hockey Town: It’s midmorning on a Saturday inside VGK headquarters at City National Arena. With the big boys in Miami getting ready for a game that night against the Florida Panthers, about 150 kids have taken over one of the arena’s two sheets of ice for a skating lesson. A half-hour later, those kids skate off and another 150 skate on. A half-hour after that, another 150 off, another 150 on.
The youngest of the bunch are 3-year-olds who use traffic cones to (occasionally) maintain their balance. The oldest are 16. All are participating in the fourth session of the eight-week Learn to Skate academy that the Golden Knights launched in May 2017. The goal: Teach kids the basics of skating (forward, backward, sideways, starting, stopping, etc.)
One thing you’ll see a lot of at Learn to Skate? Falling. One thing you won’t see? A hockey stick. “I like to put it this way,” says Chad Goodwin, the Knights’ director of skating, “you can’t join the swim team without learning how to swim. Hockey is the same with skating.”
Goodwin’s job during each session is to navigate between about 15 different stations, monitoring the kids’ progress as they work with nearly a dozen adult instructors. When Goodwin is convinced a participant has mastered a certain technique, he’ll promote that skater to the next station.
For the Knights, Learn to Skate is the jumping-off point in a tiered process that, ideally, will see hundreds of local boys and girls graduate to the next level (Learn to Play), then the next (Lil’ Knights), before ultimately joining what’s called a House League and/or the Junior Knights travel team.
It’s all part of the Golden Knights’ grand plan to really turn this into Hockey Town — one that’s self-sustaining.
“The overall mission is getting kids into hockey and getting them to be passionate about it,” says Kim Frank, the Knights’ vice president of marketing. “What you’ll often see in hockey is when kids reach 10, 11, 12 years old, their interest peters out a little bit. The big thing with us is we want to make sure kids have the opportunity to start young, but also give them the support to continue to play — make it fun and competitive from a young age so that by 10, 11, 12, they’re competitive with others their age around the country.”
The participation numbers Frank rattles off are almost impossible to believe: After starting with a couple of hundred kids, Learn to Skate has grown to more 3,750. Learn to Play and Lil’ Knights debuted in April 2018 with 84 and roughly 60 participants, respectively; today, Frank says those numbers are at 425 and 1,300.
Because of the rapid growth, sessions for each program are spread across multiple days of the week at three ice venues: City National, Sobe Ice Arena at Fiesta Rancho in North Las Vegas, and Las Vegas Ice Center at Flamingo and Fort Apache roads.
“Obviously, when you look at our fan base, you know that the interest for our team is there, but that’s not the only reason our youth participation numbers are increasing,” Frank says. “It also has to do with the love kids are developing for the game. It’s been really fun to watch, and we’re excited to see what happens in the next couple of years.”
With financial assistance from the NHL, the Golden Knights have made a substantial investment in both the Learn to Skate and Learn to Play programs. Each kid who participates in the former is provided with a helmet and skates for each session, while those who graduate to Learn to Play are given a full set of gear. Same goes for the Lil’ Knights, which is underwritten by the D Las Vegas.
How will these entities know that their investments have paid off? Frank can answer that one: “We want more rinks in town, and we want to see our programs thriving and competing across the country, not just locally and up and down the West Coast. We also want the next NHL stars to come out of Las Vegas. You look at a 6-year-old kid currently in Learn to Play, 12 years from now, you want to see them in that NHL draft!” (citynationalarena vegas.com)