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The peppiest sport—and its dark side.
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That’s the spirit!
Once a sideline spectacle reserved for pretty pom-pom girls, cheerleading is now an international competitive sport on its way to full Olympic recognition. In the US, it’s also a sprawling, profitable market dominated by one company: Varsity Brands.
Cheerleading today is made up of more traditional spirit teams that cheer on other athletes, and all-star teams that compete for titles regionally and nationally. These teams train nearly year-round to perform the stunt-filled routines that we love to watch on YouTube.
Cheerleading also has a dark side, which includes allegations of poor working conditions for professionals and unsafe practices at the competitive collegiate level. These issues have come to light in recent years thanks to lawsuits by individual cheerleaders, and documentaries such as A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem and the series Cheer. But whether and when the sport of cheerleading will fundamentally change to address these problems is an open question. Go team!
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By the digits
$85,000: Seed funding collected by Jeff Webb in 1974 to launch Varsity Brands
$2.5 billion: Price paid by Bain Capital in 2018 for the purchase of Varsity Brands
4 million: Cheerleaders in the US in 2016
$15: Per game wage for Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in 1989—$13.94 after taxes
$100-$125: Typical current per-game wage for NFL cheerleaders today
$1.25 million: Size of a 2017 fair-pay lawsuit settlement between former cheerleaders and the NFL’s Oakland Raiders
97%: Share of US cheerleaders that are women
70.8%: Share of all direct catastrophic injuries to female athletes at the college level caused by cheerleading between 1982 and 2009
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In the late 1800s, groups of young men at Ivy League colleges formed “yell teams” to cheer at football games. Women started joining cheerleading teams during World War II; by the mid-1970s, almost all cheerleaders were women.
In 1972, the US government passed Title IX, a law that barred discrimination in publicly funded schools on the basis of sex. The courts ruled that cheerleading didn’t count as a varsity sport, meaning it wasn’t subject to the same equal opportunity requirements. According to Jaime Schultz, associate professor of kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, that’s when “girls and women began to turn away from cheerleading.”
“In response,” Schultz writes, “leaders of the emerging ‘spirit industry,’ who sought to expand and profit from the activity, made it more athletic by encouraging the use of acrobatic stunts and tumbling.” Despite the athleticism required, cheering is still considered a “student activity,” and thus not held to Title IX standards.
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“Today, competing means entering Varsity’s world.”
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Million-dollar question: How do you have a monopoly on cheerleading?
Varsity sells cheerleading apparel; runs most major cheer competitions, which are broadcast on its network, Varsity TV; manages off-season cheer camps; owns or sells insurance to major gyms; and owns the National Cheerleaders Association and other major bodies associated with the sport.
In 2014, Varsity was bought by private equity firm Charlesbank Capital Partners, which helped the company expand into new markets and buy out many of its competitors, including event operator JAM Brands. Competitors say Varsity now controls over 90% of major cheerleading competitions and 80% of the apparel market. In 2018, Charlesbank sold Varsity to Bain Capital.
Critics allege that Varsity rigs competition rules to favor its own products and platforms, and actively tries to prevent cheerleading from being recognized as an official sport by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations in order to keep its hold over the industry.
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Explain it like I’m 5!
During all-star cheer competitions, teams perform an elaborate routine that lasts two minutes and 30 seconds in front of a panel of judges. The judges then evaluate the routines based on individual rubrics that vary from one competition to the next, but typically reward elements of tumbling, stunting, pyramids, and dance.
There are six levels of all-star cheerleading. Competition season typically lasts from late summer to late spring, and most cheerleaders attend between five and 10 competitions (pdf) per season. To get ready for the competitions, all-star cheerleaders practice at least two to three times a week for about three hours, in addition to private practices. These practices are particularly dangerous, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (pdf), because they involve performing risky stunts on hard surfaces under the supervision of coaches with little training or experience.
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1923: Women are allowed to cheer for the first time, at the University of Minnesota.
1948: Lawrence Herkimer launches the National Cheerleaders Association.
1971: Herkimer invents and patents the pom-pom.
1974: Jeff Webb starts the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA), which will later become Varsity.
1980: UCA holds the first National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Florida.
1986: Herkimer sells the National Cheerleaders Association for $20 million. Varsity buys its parent company, National Spirit Group, in 2004.
2000: Bring It On comes out, shining a spotlight on the sport of cheerleading.
2004: Varsity launches the nonprofit International Cheer Union, the self-proclaimed “recognized world governing body of Cheerleading.”
2016: The International Olympic Committee grants cheerleading provisional recognition as an Olympic sport.
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The way we 🏈 now
In 2014, cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders and the Buffalo Bills separately sued their teams for wage theft. The cases were eventually featured in a 2019 documentary, A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem. In the documentary, GQ’s Stephanie Talmadge writes, NFL cheerleaders were asked to do “jumping jacks in front of management in order to show they are fit enough to perform,” “sit on attendees’ laps, perform in-costume routines, do tricks, and sit in a dunk tank” at a golf tournament, and “pose topless or while wearing only body paint.”
Things are slowly changing. Some teams have made their uniforms less sexualized. Other teams have developed guidelines for cheerleader pay. The teams now feature more male cheerleaders, shifting the dynamics of the industry. The biggest change by far happened in California in 2016, when assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez led a push to mandate that all professional cheerleaders be classified as employees, rather than independent contractors.
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Varsity has long fought to keep cheerleading from becoming an official sport, arguing on its website that “cheerleading’s primary purpose [is] to support high school athletic teams, and competition comes second.” Critics say that letting the popular sport go unrecognized (and therefore unregulated) increases the chances of catastrophic incidents and abuse. As Leif Reigstad points out in his 2015 Houston Press investigation on Varsity, regulating cheerleading “could mean implementing participation restrictions on teams and athletes, threatening Varsity’s competitions and its off-season camps, one of the company’s most profitable components.”
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