Cheerleading is an important part of the sport experience. It has long excited crowds adding gymnastics and dance to the gameday experience. But cheerleading is far more than cheering teams on – it is a sport in its own right, but unfortunately many do not agree. The strength, precision, timing, skill, and time-commitment of the sport will blow your mind, yet they hardly receive the respect they are due. We want to be a part of the journey of helping cheerleaders gain the recognition that it deserves.
Cheerleading generally has three purposes: motivation, entertainment, and competition.
Pay close attention to that last point: competition. Yet, there still seems to be debate surrounding whether it should be considered a sport. Webster’s dictionary defines sport as “a physical activity governed by a set of rules and/or norms, and often engaged in competitively”. So, by definition, cheerleading is a sport. And yes, cheerleaders are athletes – and highly skilled athletes at that! We managed to talk to Shelbie Kovach, a former Arizona State, LA Lakers, and LA Rams dancer, to get an insight into some issues regarding cheerleading.
“Yes, a lot of people say cheerleading isn’t a sport. I may be biased, but I 100% disagree! You have to be very athletic, in shape, and not to mention a beautiful ambassador to the public. If anything, it’s more than a sport! You also have to know how to publicly speak, act, and also dress. You are representing an organization bigger than yourself and need to be professional at all times. I think many people say it isn’t a sport because there are many who do it for fun. But if you’d like to take it to the next level (NFL or NBA) you have to be passionate, committed, and determined.”
Cheerleading teams have to lift, practice, work in a team, and do everything that any other sports team does. A standard schedule for most professional cheerleaders, requires a commitment of 30-40 hours a week.
This includes rehearsals, workouts, charity performances, games, and special appearances. If you think that charity performances and special appearances don’t account for much, you are sorely mistaken! The Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders average between 60 and 80 charity appearances every year. Appearances in the past have included fundraisers for sickle cell research, American Heart association walks, breast cancer research walks, visits to children’s hospitals, visits to St. Vincent’s home for sexually abused children, feeding the local poor and building low-cost housing for Habitat for Humanity! What these cheerleaders do for their respective communities is jaw-dropping. We have never heard of such generosity in any sport! But sadly, still many look down on them and do not treat them the way they deserve to be treated. The number of events that cheerleaders work at each week depends on the team, sport and the league that they are a part of, but the time commitment is massive regardless. This kind of grueling schedule would be acceptable if these cheerleaders were being paid fairly, which usually isn’t the case.
It’s Not All Glamour
Professional cheerleaders often face disrespect, both from a spectator standpoint and a corporate standpoint. From a corporate standpoint, it is sad to see that many professional cheerleaders are still underpaid- even lower than the minimum wage. Shelbie told us that the salary per event is along the lines of $100-125 for games, $30 for practice, and $50 for special appearances. When you look at the number of hours worked per week, the hourly wage comes up to about $4. This is clearly lower than the minimum wage in most states. These figures also change quite drastically throughout the different sports. Most times, this occurs because cheerleaders are only being paid for their services during games, and often do not get paid for their work at charity events or other social gatherings. Cheerleaders usually do not get compensated for their transport to and from these events, or for the make-up or hair that they must do to stay compliant with some ridiculous demands from their teams. Shelbie had this to say about the compensation of cheerleaders:
“This is always a subject that is brought up to cheerleaders. I would say for the time and effort we put into everything altogether, we are underpaid. Teams vary on their salary and what specific budget they may have. But if you are serious and make it a disciplined job, it is consistently hard work and takes much determination. A lot of girls have multiple part time jobs or a full-time job with the team. You definitely cannot make a living from a cheerleader salary.”
Despite the unfair wages they still do their part to give back to those more in need. The Baltimore Ravens cheerleading team agreed to donate their first paycheck of the year to the Red Cross when Hurricane Katrina hit to aid relief efforts. It may not sound like a lot, but it is to these cheerleaders if you consider how little they make. This level of unselfishness is totally unprecedented and should not go unacknowledged.
Cheerleaders have begun voicing their concerns due to experiences being called unflattering names and being groped on a regular basis. There have been interviews with professional cheerleaders, who say that the team benefits when the cheerleaders are sent to pre-game tailgates and other social gatherings. It is at these social events where cheerleaders usually face the worst type of sexual harassment and unwanted contact from fans. Labriah Lee Holt, former NFL cheerleader, said that she doesn’t face any of this from anybody within the team or corporation, but in settings where alcohol is involved, there is far too much unwanted touching from fans. Another former NFL cheerleader recently said that fans in the stands often say the worst things, and that they do it in the presence of security. While these kinds of instances are appalling, what is even worse is that these cheerleaders are often supposed to just “take it.” “It comes as a part of the job” is what they are generally told. They often fear complaining about anything because they believe that they might be fired by their team. Cheerleaders must sign non-disclosure agreements before they begin working, implying that if harassment does take place and if they complain, they will be let go. Therefore, most cheerleaders wish to stay anonymous in interviews where they talk about instanced like these. Debra Katz, a Washington lawyer says, “Anytime you have a profession or an industry where sexual harassment can be anticipated, putting someone under an N.D.A. is designed to clearly protect the image and the team.”
Many cheerleaders are pleading their case for being paid fairly, with some deciding to take legal action as well. NFL cheerleaders have sued their teams for functioning with unfair labor and pay-related policies. Cheerleaders claim that they are not paid fairly because they are not compensated for public appearances, charity events, and even practices. Some cheerleaders are not paid for their game day work but are “compensated” by receiving a game ticket ($90) and a parking pass ($25), which they could choose to sell if they wanted. The teams’ responses are that cheerleaders are independent contractors, which means that teams should not be required to pay state and federal minimum wages. However, considering that organizations have so much control over the activities of their cheerleaders, it is only fair that cheerleaders should be classified as full-time employees (not seasonal employees), and should thus be paid at least the minimum wage.
If conditions are terrible, why do it?
The unsympathetic may ask, why do it if it is so terrible? The answer is simple, because they love it. Shelbie has fond, early memories of dancing. “I started dancing at just 3yrs old. My mom put me into dance and ever since then, I fell in love. I didn’t start cheerleading probably until I was 5 or 6yrs old with my competitive team at my private dance studio. Ever since then, I have participated in countless amounts of cheer/dance camps, and always did gymnastics and tumbling classes as well.”
“I could not even begin to tell you how much happiness and joy cheerleading and dancing has brought to my life. Everyone should know that every girl who participates in cheerleading and dancing definitely isn’t just doing it for the money. To be serious in cheerleading, or any field of work, you have to be passionate, committed, and determined. Being a cheerleader has taught me much about professionalism and time management. It has also made me very healthy and active. I wouldn’t be the Shelbie I am today if it wasn’t for dance and cheer. There is nothing like sharing the feeling of love for dance with thousands of people cheering in the stands on gamedays. The adrenaline and excitement it brings me never gets old, and I think that is what life is about. Finding something that is true to your heart that you do because of pure joy.”
While there are some clear issues within cheerleading, she recounts great experiences of her times in the professional realm. “My work environment has been exhilarating and filled with some ultimate experiences. I have met so many people doing cheerleading and have spread love through my talent of dance. I have many friends from the teams I’ve been a part of and have made some lifetime memories. With cheerleading, you of course have to practice a lot and work on a gameday routine, but you also have travel opportunities, countless appearances, and amazing charity work opportunities. I was never doing the same thing every week and I think that is what made it so enjoyable.” It’s amazing to see someone get so much joy out of something that still has a long way to go.
Steps in the Right Direction
Certain teams are starting to take action in making working conditions more reasonable for cheerleaders. The Washington Wizards are one of the first franchises to start doing so. They would help their dancers find sponsorships, secure practice locations, provide free parking, and provide tickets to games for family members. Although that doesn’t sound like much, the dancers said it really made a difference. Why are more teams not doing this? All these amenities come at basically no cost to the team, so why can’t more things like this be done?
Shelbie solidified these efforts. “With being a cheerleader/dancer, you do get many sponsors and connections. Whether it may be for hair, makeup, tanning, spa, etc. I must say that we receive a lot of things most girls don’t. It is very important for dancers to keep themselves looking the best they can. There is a lot of time and maintenance that goes into that. I think a lot of people may think the job is so much fun that girls might even do it for free. But, it is a lot of hard work.” We also asked her of other efforts being made to assist cheerleaders. “There have been many petitions that I have heard about and also lawsuits. I have never been a part of that. I think from the past decade to now, there is more pay and respect amongst dance and cheerleading teams. Maybe in the future it will keep expanding.”
These are all steps in the right direction, but much more needs to be done!
Why we care
We salute these dancers for the hard work they put in, and hope that we can play a small role in increasing the respect for and bettering the treatment of cheerleaders across the globe! Sport is incredibly powerful, and we hope to help athletes along their professional journeys in any way we can!
This story is reminiscent of one of the main reasons that SPRTER was founded. We recognize that there are athletes or sporters (sports influencers: athletes, former athletes, coaches, agents, teams, leagues, brands, etc.), as we like to call them, all over the world who struggle, and we want to help them. We wanted to create a platform where you can easily create a strong brand and then monetize that brand to help you get by. All the charity work that these cheerleaders do, the crazy hours they put in, the media attention, and their importance to their teams and the sporting experience does not add up to the salaries they earn. As Shelbie mentioned, cheerleaders often get by through endorsement and sponsors, and that is what we want to do for athletes. We want them to be able to show their best self to the world through their hard work and community/charity efforts to earn the business of sponsors to help them financially. Brands have started reaching out to us about wanting to work with the sporters on our platform. We hope to continue this and aid sporters in landing new partnerships/sponsorships!