If you think you know cheerleading, think again. It has become so much more than just girls—and sometimes boys—standing on the sidelines, cheering for their teams to win the game. Research shows there are approximately 4 million participants in cheerleading across the United States, from elementary school to college. It’s in more than 70 countries around the world.
Today, cheer and dance events are attracting more attendees and participants than ever. In 2016, the College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship attracted 220 teams, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year, and more than 20,000 spectators. For the last five years, 9 Panel Production has hosted the Allstar Jam in Asheville, N.C., an event that draws athletes from North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Tennessee. Each year, the event producer has seen an increase in participation, with approximately 300 athletes attending the event earlier this year. “We have seen participation and interest in the sport increase each year,” said Kiel Pratt, 9 Panel Production’s judging coordinator. “We started out with less than 20 teams at this event and now we have well over 60.”
Oklahoma is a hotbed for competitive cheer and dance. Annually, Oklahoma City University hosts the Oklahoma State Dance Team Directors’ Association State Championships, which attracts more than 1,000 competitors and 4,000 fans each year. Oklahoma City hosted the 2017 NAIA Competitive Cheer and Dance National Championship, which was the first year for NAIA to change from the Cheer and Dance Invitational to a National Championship. Twenty-four teams competed, 12 in cheer and 12 in dance, with approximately 25 to 30 people traveling with each team. “We anticipated about 700 competitors and around 1,000 to 1,500 fans each day, for a total of 1,100 hotel rooms for the entirety of the competition,” said Erin Randall, Oklahoma City CVB’s sports business manager. “It was a great event and it was made even better when our very own Oklahoma City University won the inaugural Cheer National Championship.”
There are numerous elements that draw athletes to cheerleading and USA Cheer, the national governing body for sport cheering, has helped add another: STUNT. STUNT is the fastest-growing female sport in the country. It’s a discipline of cheerleading that removes the crowd element and instead focuses on the technical and athletic parts of cheer, such as partner stunts, basket tosses, and tumbling. USA Cheer created STUNT to specifically target colleges, universities and high schools to help them meet Title IX requirements. The traditional format of competition cheer is not actually deemed a sport in the United States because it doesn’t meet the sport requirements from a Title IX perspective, so USA Cheer saw the need to create a version that is Title IX compliant. “STUNT is our newest initiative and every year up to 40 colleges are participating in STUNT,” said Lauri Harris, USA Cheer’s executive director. “In the meantime, it has been exploding at the high school level. More than 10 states are hosting some form of STUNT at the high school level.”
USA Cheer has applied for and is awaiting word on whether STUNT will be granted official sport status, something the organization has been working toward for the past few years. In California, STUNT was recently adopted as a sport. “In California this spring, more than 100 high schools will be playing STUNT in a traditional sports format,” Harris said. “That is big.”
While STUNT is the organization’s major initiative to grow the sport of cheerleading, USA Cheer is also putting an additional emphasis on safety. The organization is bringing more resources to coach training, additional rules training and keeping everyone up to date on the latest ways coaches and organizations can keep athletes safe. “Our mission is involving young people in cheerleading,” said Harris. “We want to make sure we are doing all we can to help promote the sport while focusing on what’s in the best interest of the athletes to keep them safe.”
With participation in the United States as high as ever and a growing interest around the world, the International Cheer Union is working to get cheerleading added as an Olympic sport. USA Cheer is doing all it can to help: the organization attended the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea in an ambassador role to showcase the sport. “Cheerleading is such a great activity because there is so much athletes can learn through the sport,” said Harris. “Specifically, kids who are involved in general tend to have higher grades, have a higher graduation rate, are more likely to attend college and be stronger leaders because they’ve been involved in a team environment. Being involved in any sort of athletic activity, like cheerleading, increases the ability to communicate, and teamwork and leadership.”