Cheerleading has come a long way since Jeff Webb was a yell leader at the University of Oklahoma more than 40 years ago – and Webb is among the big reasons why.
Webb founded Varsity Spirit in 1974 and the organization it is blossomed into now known as Varsity Brands – Webb serves as chairman — is a multipronged operation that the company says has sales of more than $1.3 billion across three business units. At the heart of its success was Webb’s approach to adding more entertainment and athleticism to traditional cheerleading.
With the advent of new disciplines and competitions and the rise in club cheerleading, participation continues to grow. Webb said there are about 750,000 high school cheerleaders, nearly half million in club, half a million youth cheerleaders and roughly 20,000 in college.
Among the next big goal is to see competitive cheerleading recognized as a sport for the 2020 Olympics.
USA TODAY High School Sports talked to Webb about the Olympic dream, the evolution of the sport, the upcoming college and high school national championships and more.
Q: The long-held perception of what cheerleading was is probably different than what it has become. How do you define it?
A: Cheerleading is more than a sport. It’s a unique combination of leadership, athleticism and entertainment. … We’ve transformed it to make it more modern. We didn’t want to take away from the leadership position on the sidelines (of trying to involve the crowd) that’s been done for years and years. We wanted to add more tools to make it more relevant, more entertaining and be better able to capture the attention of the crowd. In doing so, we wanted to create the desire for more people to participate. That’s what’s happened, in large part, across the country.
The competitions you see on ESPN are our competitions. We’ve added athleticism, tumbling, the partner stunts and the choreographed routines that you see at halftime or in between quarters. Cheerleaders are now using signs or doing shoulder stands to lead the crowd. It’s the process of giving them those athletic tools to do their job.
Another discipline of cheerleading that’s come on in the last 15 years is club cheerleading with all-stars. The teams only compete. They are not part of a school. They are part of a gym or club like athletes in gymnastics. Both are really athletic, but one is in school and has the leadership component.
Q: Among the ultimate goals is inclusion in the Olympics. How do you see that happening?
A: The cheerleading community, as things begin to expand internationally, formed the International Cheering Union. There are 107 national federations that are members, including USA Cheer. The World Championship, with more than 70 countries, are scheduled for Orlando in mid-April. The process to participation generally comes after recognition as a newer sport. From an international standpoint, the proper governance and proper guidelines have to be put in place with all the things that are important to the IOC. That includes anti-doping, education, and a number of other standards for recognition and that’s what we’re focusing on. The ICU has been admitted to SportAccord, which has been vetting new members for the IOC. The application is in with the IOC now.
There are lots of sports and many of them that are in line and want to be part of the Games and are deserving. One thing that causes us to be somewhat optimistic is we think this fits in line with where (the IOC) would like to see some emphasis based on the 2020 report. It’s young, it’s visual, it’s telegenic and involves women and men. We think we’ve got a great sport. It’s up to us to go through the process and convince the sporting community that we belong.
Q: You have a couple of significant competitions coming up in the next few weeks. What should people expect?
A: This weekend — Friday, Saturday and Sunday — is the college cheerleading national championships for all different levels of colleges and universities held in Orlando. More than 250 teams and colleges will be represented. This is their time to be the actual center of attention. During the year, they have been a support group. Now they put a routine together and show how they lead the crowd for 2 ½ minutes with music, stunts and pyramids. We will name a national champion.
The first full weekend in February is the National High School Cheerleading Championships also in Orlando. That consists of 50 regional qualifying tournaments done all over the country and the top teams – more than 600 – actually participate. That is a huge event each year and televised on ESPN.
One of the things that makes cheerleading more than a sport is we try to create categories to allow the teams to take what they do at their schools and compete against schools with a similar philosophy. We also have divisions based on the size of the team and co-ed divisions. We also have a fairly new division called game day for the teams that are not totally into competition. They come on to the stage and are given a particular situation in the game and they have to show what they do in that situation – cheer or do the fight song or something else. It’s not only one technique, it’s their ability to select the right thing to do at the right time. It’s the third year and it’s growing really quickly. The University Interscholastic League in Texas is having its first-ever state cheerleading competition and the entire format is game day with more than 300 teams.
Q: In the fall, California recognized competitive cheerleading as a sport, the ninth to do so. Do you see other states and state associations following?
A: We have four disciplines: traditional cheerleading, all-star club, game day and the fourth one, which will be emphasized by the CIF, is stunt. That’s more of a new sport. There was a lot of discussion, controversy and legalese as to whether cheerleading should be recognized as a sport for Title IX purposes. We created with high schools and with some state associations the new discipline that takes a lot of the techniques, the moves and skills that make it consistent with the definition according to Title IX. There is a county in North Carolina in which all the high schools are having a county-wide competition. It’s under review by the NCAA committee for new sports. The idea is beginning to get some legs … I actually believe it’s going to get really big. It will take a little time, but it’s a sport that’s come.
Q: We hear a lot about the dangers of cheerleading, especially head injuries. More teams are doing stunts and throws so presumably that could increase the likelihood of injury. How do you respond to those concerns?
A: The cheerleading community has been at the forefront of safety guidelines and safety standards for a number of years. Our objective is zero injuries, of course. The latest studies with accurate statistics are done by third-party PhDs and MDs show cheerleading is near the bottom of all sports. There is a lot of misinformation about cheerleading injuries. Are there concussions and are there injuries? Of course. But we are doing all we can to eliminate them. Compared to other sports, the injury rate is actually low.
Note: Webb references a study released in the January edition of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ journal, Pediatrics. Using the last five years of data compiled by the National High School Sports-Related Injury Surveillance Study, the researchers say cheerleading ranks 18th out of 22 sports. The study also says the concussion rates “were significantly lower in cheerleading (2.2 per 10,000 athletic exposures) than all other sports combined (3.8) and all other girls’ sports (2.7).”
Q: With the advent of club cheerleading, does that mean cheerleading has become a year-round sport like AAU basketball or 7-on-7 football for a lot of participants?
A: A third of high school cheerleaders play another sport. There’s not that much overlap between high school and club cheer and all-star. That starts with younger age groups and levels of expertise and different divisions. By the time they get to high school, there are a number of senior teams and that is more of a 10-month commitment. But my kids both played soccer at a high level too … We haven’t seen any decrease in participation in high school because of club.