Menu Close

Cheerleading’s peculiar path to potential Olympic sport

Is cheerleading a sport?

The International Olympic Committee thinks so. In December, the IOC’s executive board voted to provisionally recognize cheerleading. This means that for the next three years, the IOC will provide the International Cheer Union (ICU) with at least US$25,000 annually to promote the sport. During that time, the ICU can apply for full Olympic recognition in the Summer Olympic Games. ICU president Jeff Webb called the decision a “monumental milestone for cheerleading” and “the culmination of my life’s work.”

I study the history of women’s sport, which makes me curious about Webb’s enthusiasm for the IOC’s decision. In the past, he has argued against classifying cheerleading as a sport. So why the sudden reversal?

The IOC’s decision isn’t the first time a major organization has played a role in determining whether cheerleading is a sport. A brief history shows that the debate is more complicated – and more political – than it might seem.

A brief history of cheer

Cheerleading dates back to the late 1800s, when U.S. college football started gaining popularity. “Cheer leading” – as it was then known – was for men only and the “rooter kings” and “yell leaders” were often captains of other sports teams. The prestige of the position, The Nation wrote in 1911, was “hardly second to that of having been a quarter-back.”

Around the 1930s, girls and women began pushing for inclusion. By World War II, the demographics of most squads changed, and cheerleading transformed from a physical activity to a primarily social activity.

Soon, professional teams found that cheerleaders’ wholesome sexuality boosted the entertainment value of their product. By the mid-1970s, an estimated 95 percent of all cheerleaders were girls and women.

The Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders perform at an NFL game in 1978. AP Photo

A business booms

Title IX of the Education Amendment Acts of 1972 ushered in the first debate over cheerleading’s status as a sport. School administrators who hoped to count cheerleaders as athletes in order to comply with the new law were soon disappointed. In 1975, the Office of Civil Rights resolved that cheerleading was an “extracurricular activity,” not a sport. That is, it was more like marching band than basketball.

With a range of new athletic opportunities brought about by Title IX and a changing society, girls and women began to turn away from cheerleading. In response, 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. Leading the charge was Jeff Webb, a former collegiate cheerleader who, in 1974, founded the Universal Cheerleaders Association and, later, the Varsity Spirit Corporation.

Webb held his first training camp in the summer of 1975. In 1979 Varsity began selling cheerleading uniforms; in 1980 it held the first high school cheerleading championship, which ESPN broadcast in 1983. Since then, Varsity has either acquired or driven out its competitors to virtually corner the cheerleading market.

By the 1990s, cheerleaders were athletes, and Varsity was big business.

Members of a Kentucky cheerleading squad compete in the NCA Cheer National Championship in 1995. Eric Gay/AP Photo

Today, Varsity Spirit is part of Varsity Brands Inc., which, among its many holdings, includes a staggering and diverse number of cheerleading and dance assets, including USA Cheer, the National Cheerleaders Association (once a rival organization), the National Dance Alliance, American Cheerleader magazine, and It hosts camps and clinics and stages cheerleading’s biggest competitions. It owns cheerleading gyms and academies around the world. It provides cheerleading insurance and coaching safety and certification courses. But Varsity’s biggest moneymaker is its uniforms and accessories division. Experts estimate it commands more than 80 percent of the market.

Varsity Brands also backs the ICU.

Follow the money?

To be clear, competitive cheerleading – the variety the ICU and related groups promote – is distinct from traditional sideline cheerleading, where supportive auxiliaries rally crowds and promote school spirit. While cheerleaders can participate in both varieties of the activity, competitive cheer focuses on contests against other squads at the local, regional, national and now international levels.

A key moment in cheerleading history came with the 2010 Biediger v. Quinnipiac University case, in which Quinnipiac volleyball players and their coach filed suit after university administrators cut their team. In place of volleyball, they promoted competitive cheerleading to varsity sport status.

At the trial, Webb took the stand as an expert witness to testify that cheerleading was not a sport. The judge agreed, deciding that “Competitive cheer may, some time in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX; today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletic participation opportunities for students.”

Critics contend that Webb’s testimony had everything to do with Varsity’s bottom line. If cheerleading became a recognized sport, it would need to abide by regulations that limited athletes’ practice sessions and competitive seasons, just like any other sport. This would have undermined Varsity’s for-profit competitions, camps, clinics and any number of ventures in which Varsity engages. As the Houston Press pointed out:

“In one of Varsity’s 2003 filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission (Varsity was briefly a public company), the company stated that recognition of cheerleading as an official sport and the ensuing increased regulation ‘would likely have a material adverse affect on Varsity’s business, financial condition and results of operations.’”

Webb and his supporters countered that by disallowing sideline activities and other traditional duties, competition-only teams would ruin cheerleading as we know it. Although squads may, from time to time, compete, their primary duties are to provide support to other teams and to their respective schools.

Toward a new kind of sport

In the meantime, safety concerns have compelled the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and a number of state high school athletic federations to define cheerleading as a sport. Varsity has fought this trend. But advocates argue that sport status will provide cheerleaders with better equipment and facilities, better training for the coaches and scholastic oversight.

For these same reasons, a number of other schools, including Quinnipiac, joined together to form the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA). The organization currently boasts 17 member institutions, headed by the University of Oregon and Baylor University

NCATA officials took careful pains to divorce their sport from cheerleading. Gone are the typical uniforms, the chants and the pom-poms. The competition format and skill set are unique. The group’s website notes that acrobatics and tumbling (A&T) is “the evolution of different forms of gymnastics” that includes only “the athletic aspects of cheerleading.” With the backing of USA Gymnastics, the NCATA has since petitioned the NCAA for “emerging sport” status (like provisional recognition from the IOC, it’s not a championship sport but could become one in the future).

Not to be outdone, USA Cheer (part of Varsity Brands; tax documents show Webb as director) approached the NCAA with its own cheer-gymnastic hybrid called STUNT.

So according to Webb and his compatriots, STUNT is a sport, but cheerleading isn’t – except when it comes to the Olympics.

A slippery definition

I’m not trying to come down on one side of the debate, and I’m not arguing against cheerleading’s place on the Olympic program. But after trying to sort through the logic behind that decision, I’m a bit skeptical. Or maybe I’m just confused.

Perhaps most confusing is that the ICU is not pushing for STUNT to become an Olympic sport; it’s pushing for cheerleading, which Webb and his Varsity compatriots unfailingly maintain isn’t a sport.

It’s not clear what Olympic cheerleading competitions might look like, but the ICU’s website shows both coed and all-female divisions, with categories in team cheer, team performance cheer (with a note in the rules that stipulates “No cheers or chants allowed”) and partner and group stunts.

We might even see yet another version at the Olympic level. This is because when the ICU initially sought membership with SportAccord – a crucial step in getting official IOC recognition – the international governing body of gymnastics (F.I.G.) opposed the application on the grounds that “Cheerleading is Gymnastics and that Cheerleading is not a distinct Sport.” The ICU could only gain acceptance after its representatives signed a contract that essentially maintained “Cheer/Chant” in its original iteration and looked nothing like gymnastics. In other words, the version of cheerleading the ICU hopes to appear on the Olympic program is the same version of cheerleading Webb consistently asserts is not a sport.

So is cheerleading a sport? I guess it depends on who you ask and why you’re asking.

The IOC’s most recent decision to provisionally recognize cheer doesn’t necessarily mean we will see it at 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But we might. And it’s too early to tell what, exactly, we’ll be cheering.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 156,400 academics and researchers from 4,519 institutions.

Register now