Cheerleading, which has exploded off the sidelines and into its own industry, can use a recent event as a snapshot showing its dominance in the world of sports business.
The College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship drew 220 teams to Disney World over the weekend, up 14 percent from a year ago. It's estimated that more than 20,000 spectators from around the United States attended the national championship events, with performances at the HP Field House and J Center at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on the grounds of the Walt Disney World Resort.
Need more proof? Get these numbers from the lower age groups. In November, Columbus, Georgia hosted the Georgia High School Sports Association's State Cheerleading Championships. And for that one city alone, hosting championships for one state, the economic impact was more than $1.5 million, according to the local ABC affiliate.
Nationwide, competitive spirit squads remain in the National Federation of State High School Associations’ top 10 most popular sports for girls.
The economic influence of competitive cheer programs can be tied to any number of factors, including the popularity of cheer in schools at the varsity level, the growth of all-star programs (private cheer gym programs not tied to schools) and the advent of STUNT, a competitive sport that uses cheer skills and is offered at the high school and college levels (although it is not currently an NCAA program.)
And while cheer includes high-flying stunts that weren’t seen several decades ago, safety regulations put in place by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators have made the sport more palatable to parents in the era of litigation and concussion awareness.
“We work with cheerleading and dance groups across the country and we offer a safety course that is available in-person or online – we really believe it’s the first thing you should do as a coach: learn how to be a coach,” AACA executive director Jim Lord noted in a recent issue of Sports Destination Management. “We realize kids want to learn and to progress, and we know they want to try the skills they have seen the more advanced teams do. And with the advent of the Internet and social media, they can see those things all the time. In a sense, it’s our job as coaches to be the brakes on the train, to keep our athletes progressing at the appropriate speed.”
About 3.7 million youths participate in cheer nationwide, either through community and school squads or private cheer gyms, according to estimates from Varsity, the biggest provider of cheerleading products and services in the industry. And while for many cheerleading is a relatively inexpensive afterschool activity, other families spend big—on private competitions, training, equipment, and camps.
Just look at the travel numbers for the recent college championships, for example: more than 4,500 of college cheerleaders, dancers and mascots from 220 teams across the U.S. The two-day event hosted 118 squads in the cheerleading division and 102 teams in the dance team division.
And here’s something else: It’s not just a spectator sport for those who travel to see it. Varsity Spirit live-streamed the college event all weekend on www.varsity.com and posted segments of each performance so fans around the world could watch their favorite teams. The competitions will also air on ESPNU and ESPN2 starting in February. Throw in pay-per-view and you have yet another revenue stream for sports.
Many universities with big sports programs offer full scholarships for cheerleading, and dozens of smaller universities offer stipends or partial scholarships.
“Those colleges see a value in cheer programs,” Lord told the Christian Science Monitor. “The atmosphere they bring to games, and the role they play in alumni functions and representing the university.”
The article went on to note that opportunities are now unfolding for cheerleaders in the post-diploma world. Coaches and trainers at camps, gyms, and schools can earn stipends to augment incomes. Full-time coaches do exist and can earn up to $30,000 a year teaching in camps and big gyms and traveling to coach teams. NFL cheer even had its moment in the reality TV spotlight with the show, “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team,” in which the stories of cheerleader wannabes were chronicled from first audition to final selection.