As Colorado Springs nears completion of its City for Champions project, an unprecedented, multi-year undertaking that will result in the development of five new venues designed to drive sports tourism, Olympic City USA’s already shiny status has become even more golden.
The venues, including two that opened in 2021, were approved by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade in 2013 and funded through a regional tourism tax and fundraising efforts.
Weidner Field, an outdoor stadium that is home to the USL Championship League’s Colorado Switchbacks FC, opened in April, while the Ed Robson Arena opened in September on the Colorado College campus.
“They anchor the north and south ends of our downtown area,” says Cheryl McCullough, senior director of sports and events at Visit Colorado Springs. “Both of them are pretty great additions to our downtown culture.”
In fact, she adds, city leaders have discussed developing a new entertainment district, complete with housing, restaurants and open-air markets, around Weidner Field, which is located at the south end of Downtown Colorado Springs. Not only does it host Switchbacks games, but it also was the site of the 2021 NCAA Division II Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships in December and several Premier Lacrosse League games last summer. It has welcomed multiple concerts and graduation ceremonies, too. The venue boasts 8,000 permanent seats, with room for an additional 7,000 on the field, which is synthetic turf with a coconut fiber and cork infill.
“The staff at Weidner thinks outside the box,” McCullough says. “There’s a lot of flexible space there, not only with the field. They have private space and can incorporate the concourse into events, too.”
At the north end of Downtown Colorado Springs sits the Ed Robson Arena, a 3,400-seat facility that now allows Colorado College’s ice hockey team to play games on campus for the first time since the program began in 1938. The ice can be converted to a hard surface, opening up the potential for everything from roller sports events to gymnastics competitions, and McCullough says the college’s residence halls are a housing option for participants during the summer.
“Right now, we’re in conversations with some pretty large event operators, one national and one international,” McCullough says about bringing in outside events. “The college is open to having those conversations, which is great because a lot of times when you work with colleges, there are some challenges relating to availability.”
Surrounded by Natural Beauty
When it comes to Colorado Springs’ gorgeous scenery, there are no barriers. In fact, the city offers some of the most breathtaking natural sports venues in the country. Pikes Peak (known as “America’s Mountain”) and Garden of the Gods Park (a geologic wonder that was named the “No. 1 U.S. Park” by TripAdvisor®) each host popular annual endurance events. Both sites also rank among the city’s top three attractions, according to McCullough. If you’re curious: The United States Air Force Academy is the third one.
“We are really fortunate to have such a diverse recreational backyard,” she says.
The Pikes Peak APEX, a multi-day 100-mile-plus mountain bike challenge on the mountain’s slopes, debuted in 2020, one of the few such events to take place in North America that year, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. In 2021, another challenge hit organizers in the form of the Delta variant.
“We’re hoping this year will be the big year,” McCullough says of the event, slated for Sept. 22-25. “It’s a great purse [$25,000 cash, plus age-group prizes] and it’s super challenging. They’re also adding some kids’ events this year and partnering with a trail running organization to have some trail runs, as well. It’s going to feel more like a festival.”
Over the years, Colorado Springs has established a reputation as a cycling destination, whether it be on the road or in the mountains. But it never had an event to call its own until the Pikes Peak APEX, she adds. Proceeds from that event go to the Pikes Peak Outdoor Recreation Alliance’s Trail Stewardship Fund.
Runners, meanwhile, are expected to gather at Garden of the Gods Park for a series of races slated for this summer, collectively called the Garden to Peak Challenge. Formerly known as the Triple Crown of Running, its participants must complete the Garden of the Gods 10-Mile Run in June, the 12.6-mile Barr Trail Mountain Race in July and either the 13.3-mile Pikes Peak Ascent or the Pikes Peak Marathon. Both Pikes Peak events take place in September, and runners will top out at an elevation of more than 14,100 feet.
“I hear the word ‘conquer’ so much when people talk about Pikes Peak,” McCullough says. “So, when you incorporate the Garden of the Gods, too, that really enhances the challenge.”
An Inaugural Rodeo Event
Back on the ground, the Norris Penrose Event Center, a multi-purpose facility with an outdoor arena built for rodeos, will welcome the inaugural National Finals Rodeo (NFR) Open at the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo in July. Organizers expect it to be one of the biggest of the 2022 PRORODEO season, with $1 million in payouts to contestants, livestock and other Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) members. More than 200 contestants from each of the 12 U.S. circuits (plus Canada) will compete, and the NFR Open will be broadcast on The Cowboy Channel.
“It’s really exciting because there will be a different level of athlete coming in. These are professional cowboys and cowgirls” McCullough says. “The NFR Open is happening at the same time as Pikes Peak or Bust, so we’ll have a larger contestant pool than usual.”
The PRCA’s national headquarters and hall of fame is in Colorado Springs, and McCullough credits the new partnership to the strong relationship between the association and local Pikes Peak or Bust organizers.
The Norris Penrose Event Center’s Stadium Arena boasts 51,000 square feet of dirt floor, a covered concourse and covered seating for 5,500 (with box seat options for the first three rows), and it is adjacent to the trail systems of El Paso County Bear Creek Park. An indoor event center is designed to host a variety of non-equestrian events.
Fun fact: The facility is named after Bob Norris (the original “Marlboro Man” from the television commercials, who lived in Colorado Springs at the time of his death in 2019) and Spencer Penrose (who opened The Broadmoor hotel and resort in Colorado Springs in 1918).
‘Always Room for More’
All of this doesn’t even take into consideration the events and venues that have earned Colorado Springs the official designation of Olympic City USA, since two dozen national governing bodies of sport call Colorado Springs home.
With so much happening in Colorado Springs these days, it’s easy to understand why new hotels are going up in the city, which already counts about 14,500 rooms. Downtown Colorado Springs welcomed 37 new businesses in 2021, too — a record. Additionally, more than 60 area attractions include trains, parks, a zoo and, of course, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum, another City for Champions venue. It opened in the middle of the pandemic and was named the country’s “Best New Attraction” in 2020 by USA TODAY.
Yet despite an increasingly crowded schedule of sporting activities throughout the year, McCullough and her team are eager to welcome additional ones.
“There’s always room for more events,” she says. “We look at every event as being a great benefit to our community, especially if there is an opportunity for a long-term partnership and if a giveback piece is involved — like how a portion of the Pikes Peak APEX proceeds go toward trail maintenance and trail architecture.”
Plus, McCullough adds, there’s really no place else like Colorado Springs in the entire State of Colorado — and not only for the reasons listed above. “You can be downtown,” she says, “and then within 10 minutes, you can be in the mountains.” SDM