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Virtual Tryouts Allowing Teams to Gather Athletes for Next Season

28 Apr, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Technology Leading the Way as the Sports Industry Works through COVID-19 Delays

A rah-rah for COVID-19? That would be a big no-no. But several cheer squads in the NFL, whose recruiting season ground to a sudden halt after quarantine measures were taken in their states, have found themselves able to move forward with next season’s squad selections. Their secret weapon: virtual tryouts. College and high school squads are using this method, as are other sports. Consider it the wave of the future. 

Front Office Sports noted that while some programs are holding off on tryout action, others are moving full speed ahead. More than half a dozen NFL clubs, including the Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, and Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs are utilizing cell phones, Skype, Zoom and other forms of technology to hire their squads for the 2020 season.

“Aspiring cheerleaders are answering the call,” the article reports. “The Colts say they will likely draw double or triple the applications compared to a normal year.”

“We posted dates of when we would do auditions months ago. There have been people waiting weeks, months, a lifetime to audition for our program. We just want to get the process started and get it going,” said Kelly Tilley, the Colts director of cheerleading. “Right now, the biggest resource we have is time. So we’re going to go for this, we’re going to try it. We’re optimistic we can keep the integrity of what we’ve done in the past by doing it virtually.”

Some programs will use the virtual process to winnow down the pool of applicants while others are taking tryouts entirely online, including the interview phase, an essential aspect of all cheer auditions, since squad members are expected to be present at specific community functions and to represent the organization as a whole.

By posting everything from dance routines, music and guidelines on what to wear, squads are preparing hopefuls for the new virtual audition process.

But the virtual tryout trend is something USA Cheer, the national governing body, has already harnessed for its own members. By using the CaptainU recruitment platform, the organization has allowed high school cheer and STUNT athletes to connect with coaches at colleges with competitive programs. Cheerleaders can upload videos of themselves demonstrating specific skills so that interested coaches can contact them. And since some colleges do offer cheer scholarships of varying amounts, the ability of an athlete to showcase his or her ability to a coach in advance can provide an edge. (Organizations working to identify prospects safely are using an increasing number of online recruitment platforms, such as NextCollegeStudentAthleteSportsRecruitsSmarthlete,  UniversityAthleteFieldLevelFrontRush  and plenty of others  -- just Google “high school student athlete college recruitment” to get all the hits).

University of Tennessee, in fact, is doing its selections for next year through a virtual and online audition process as well – and it’s far from the only school to do so. Gonzaga University has instituted a similar program, as has Vanderbilt University – and a host of others. (Google “virtual tryouts” and you’ll see a multitude of hits). College competitive dance teams are also getting into the act, as are drill teams and pom squads at all levels – all the way down to children’s programs. Purdue University has taken its marching band, wind ensemble, concert band, orchestra winds and percussion tryouts to the virtual realm as well and we can expect other schools and organizations to do the same.

While performance sports seem to be eminently suited to virtual tryouts, it’s a trend that is catching on with team sports as a whole. US Lacrosse and the PLL decided to cancel in-person regional tryouts in the spring and summer, but will hold its National Combine in August as a virtual event. The Boston Imperials Ice Hockey program, offering play for girls and boys, has also shifted to a virtual tryout format.

For those using commercial recruitment platforms, a range of sports opportunities are offered, from the traditional (soccer) to the innovative (esports), and we can expect to see increased activity as students are unable to make in-person college visits or attend many camps and combines that were on the books for this spring and summer.

Cheer, however, is clearly leading the trend. Even two weeks before the deadline to apply, the Colts had received 150 applications as compared to last year’s total of 100, according to Tilley. Applicants were “coming out of the woodwork,” she said.

By the time the Broncos application closed April 3, nearly 250 people had applied, Shawna Peters, the Broncos’ cheerleading director, told FOS. That’s 100 more than the team typically gets on an annual basis. What’s more, applicants are coming from a wider geographic pool. The Chiefs, note Stephanie Judah, director of cheer for the Chiefs, ordinarily see cheer hopefuls not just from Missouri but from neighboring states like Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska. Now they’re getting applicants from as far away as California and the East Coast. It is, she notes, a part of a wider phenomenon. (There was no word as to whether these individuals planned to move to the area in order to fulfill the myriad responsibilities of members of the cheer squad).

“The second we announced virtual, I had a flood of registrations come through. I think it’s two things. One, people are at home and they’re thinking, ‘Well, why not? I’m sitting here, I’ve got time, and I can take the time to prepare,’” Judah said. “I also think it’s not as intimidating. Whether it’s a tryout in sports or an audition in dance, it’s a scary thing for everybody. When you remove the fact you don’t have to show up in person, it’s not quite as scary or intimidating.”

Of course, having a cheer squad selected is only part of the battle; ultimately, the group would have to train and practice routines and stunts together. And whether the NFL season (or the college football season, for that matter) will start on time is anyone’s guess since so much remains unknown regarding the direction the virus will take. In a recent telephone call, major college football commissioners told Vice President Mike Pence there was no way college football could return until campuses had reopened following COVID-19 restrictions.

The results of a poll conducted by Seton Hall University show only 18 percent of respondents think the president or state governors should have the responsibility to determine when and whether to begin (or resume) sports seasons, while 61 percent say that responsibility should rest with medical experts.

In a separate poll, 72 percent of respondents said they would only attend games if a vaccine were developed. If social distancing continues into the fall, 70 percent thinks the NFL should not start up to insure the players safety, with 20 percent saying the league should resume but allow the players to choose not to play, and only six percent saying the league should start up as planned. In an article in Athletic Business, 75 percent of athletic directors who were polled believed there would be a delay in starting the college football season.

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