Cheering for the Cheerleader

Do you know these brand ambassadors?

The next time you see a cheerleader, you will remember this article. Near almost any major sporting team, an energetic band of ladies (and gentlemen) clap, jump, dance, stunt, wave, and smile. Whether the team is winning or losing, there is an image and a feeling that is intended for the fan, a positive and entertaining vibe. Beyond the uniforms and debates about being necessary, there is a reality: As sports become a bigger and bigger business, the spirit squad is not advancing commensurately. Do you know why you should cheer for the cheerleader too?

The cheerleader represents the brand, from the Dallas Cowboys Star to the Kansas Jayhawk to the Jenks Trojan. Brand standards are upheld in appearance and propriety. Cheerleaders are a brand extension used to convey goodwill. As cheerleaders are asked to travel and interact with the community, they are brand ambassadors. So what’s the problem? High standards require a lot of dedication to maintain and this highly visible ambassadorship is grossly undervalued by the brands they represent. The requirements upon the cheerleader are demanding and they take their toll on grades, career, personal life, and body. If I posted a job listing for the college and professional cheerleader, it would be accurate, no-joke, if it read like this:

Wanted: Cheerleader candidates who can:

· Dedicate a minimum of 20 hours per week including weekends

· Demonstrate exceptional dance, gymnastic and/or stunting skills

· Interact positively with countless fans during games and public events

· Maintain perfect personal conduct

· Maintain a superior fitness level and weight

· Maintain their appearance at their own expense

· Tend to their own injuries

Compensation: $1 — $5 per hour + travel expenses

Universities often compensate their cheer and dance squads with semester stipends, like a textbook subsidy. This translates to less than $1 per hour while the athletes they cheer enjoy partial and full scholarships. Also, universities and colleges have three seasons so it’s a full academic year commitment. NFL spirit squads are paid approximately $150 per home game (rehearsals are not paid).Yet, after paying for hair, makeup and rehearsal travel, there is nothing left to show financially. So why do these talented people do what they do for so little?

In the classic supply vs. demand rule, when labor supply exceeds labor demand, wages stay low. This is the case in the cheer sector. Yes, there are more talented people willing to try out and be the brand ambassador for free than ever before. I cheered years ago for the experience, the challenge, and the fun of wearing the uniform and having a status alongside the team. I quickly learned it is very hard work and I better love the moment. I also had to work a side job while attending school full time. The required dedication and personal discipline is intense. Cheerleaders can use the experience to enhance their resume and future prospects but the direct benefits enjoyed by the team and the fans don’t find their way to the cheerleader. They must skip internships and career-building opportunities and orchestrate their lives around the brand’s wishes. Yet they cheer us on.

To be in front of the crowd performing your best is personal achievement. There is nothing like it! This form of brand ambassadorship requires social and athletic skill. These enhanced traits can be polished and take us far. The personal challenges build a very tough person. In fact, I would always hire a veteran spirit squad member because I know they have self-discipline and they will represent well at all times.

So the next time you see a spirit squad perform, you might remember they are required to arrive the game hours before you to practice, have been practicing all week, and must eat, drink and schedule everything necessary to be presentable to you in this moment. They do this for nearly zero compensation. Some of them worked until 2am this morning and now they are in uniform. I applaud their commitment! So, please join me in cheering for the cheerleaders, yell leaders and dancers who are here to make your fan experience better. I hope their contributions will soon be valued higher by the brands they represent so eagerly. — M

Mike Whitaker is the author of THE DECISION MAKEOVER, technology CEO of GuestX, and founder of Idea Gateway, which creates and invests in technical startups. Whitaker is Co-Founder and board member of RevTech Accelerator, a leading venture accelerator seed fund. He received his B.S. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of Kansas and his MBA from Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. For more information, visit