Cheer and Profit, Capital’s “Class” Act
A Journal of People report
Capital turns everything commodity. This is for profit. “Cheer” is no exception.
A documentary shines light on NFL cheerleader exploitation.
Cheerleaders have been part of NFL games in the U.S. for nearly 70 of the league’s 100 years. Beginning with the Baltimore Marching Colts in 1954, scores of women have suited up to cheer for players, entertain fans during games and represent franchises at events throughout the community.
The 26 teams who currently have cheer squads have long found ways to profit off them, whether through calendars or appearance fees. The league has featured women at the Pro Bowl and has made photo galleries of them at games for its website.
Until a few years ago, only those on the inside of those teams knew that those beautiful faces were masking often terrible conditions, from working for little or no money to harassment and shocking exploitation.
A documentary on PBS as part of its “Independent Lens” series exposes some of those conditions.
One brave woman said she had had enough in 2014, filed a lawsuit against the then-Oakland Raiders, and saw numerous lawsuits follow from cheerleaders with other teams.
“A Woman’s Work,” which debuted at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, primarily follows Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields, a former Raiderette cheerleader who sued the team in 2014 alleging wage theft, and Maria Pinzone, who is the lead plaintiff in a suit against the Buffalo Bills and the NFL.
A lifelong dancer, Thibodeaux-Fields said she had her room and board covered as a member of Louisiana Tech’s spirit team. She was also a member of the Golden State Warriors’ dance team, whose members were paid hourly.
When she was selected to cheer for the Raiders, it did not take long for her to realize that there were many demands put on Raiderettes, but little in the way of compensation for the commitment. She had to travel to Napa Valley for appearances at the team’s training camp, and was not reimbursed for the cost of gas. There was over $200 for a manicure, tanning session and a specific hairstyle for the calendar shoot, which also came out of her pocket.
Weeks went by and Thibodeaux-Fields and her husband realized she would yet to get a penny from the team; at the time, Raiderettes made just $1,250 for the entire season, or $125 per home game. They were not paid for mandatory rehearsals, team charity events or photo shoots, and were paid at the end of the year. When she totaled up the hours she put into the job, she realized the team was paying its cheerleaders less than $5 per hour.
“It was crazy to think they were getting away with this,” Thibodeaux-Fields says in the film. “Forty women a year for 50 years signing this contract.”
Director/producer Yu Gu approached Thibodeaux-Fields not long after she’d filed her lawsuit to gauge her interest in allowing Gu to follow her for a film.
“When I approached her lawyers and met Lacy for the first time … I made it clear I wanted to do a longer-form documentary that was not just about what’s happening right now in this moment but I was interested in following her story and her evolution, her growth, the challenges throughout this journey,” Gu said last month. “At the time I thought maybe it would take a year; I had no experience with making films about lawsuits and I didn’t realize this was going to drag on.”
Pinzone described wage violations — the Bills’ cheerleading squad, the Jills, were not paid for anything except corporate appearances — and an atmosphere of humiliation established by former Jills director Stephanie Mateczun. “She put fear into us,” Pinzone says. She describes a humiliating “jiggle test” that would determine whether women would be allowed to perform at the coming game.
Not surprisingly, one of the threads in the documentary and in reaction to the lawsuits is victim-shaming and victim-blaming. In footage shown of Mateczun from a news interview she gave after the suit was filed, she says, “I don’t know why they decided to be an NFL cheerleader.”
One unidentified Bills fan notes in the film, “They pay $10 an hour to shovel snow out of the stadium, they [the Jills] could at least get that.”
During the course of “A Woman’s Work,” Thibodeaux-Fields was pregnant twice, with her second and third children, and her family move from Oakland to London to Florida.
“But that’s part of the documentary journey, because you don’t really know what’s going to happen, and life happens,” Gu said. “Life happens all around you. It was just an honor for us to be there alongside her, to be a partner in her journey.”
(Left to right) Former Buffalo Jills cheerleader Maria Pinzone, director Yu Gu and former Raiderette cheerleader Lacy Thibodeaux-Fields are the driving force behind the film “A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem.” (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)
Lawyers at Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams LLC, the firm which handled Thibodeaux-Fields’ case, said they were shocked when they saw the details in the Raiderettes’ contract, which specified that they were team employees but did not provide the level of compensation entitled to employees by law.
“When I heard about the older Raiderettes not supporting the women who came out with the lawsuit, that was something that really drew me to dig deeper, because it’s fascinating,” Gu said. “I wasn’t necessarily surprised because I feel like it’s just a product of the systems, the values, the way we all have been indoctrinated … For me it’s part of the fear that we have: for the women that were older and for the alumni, they felt like they had a beautiful experience — but to have someone else tell them, ‘Wait that was actually not a good deal, you got a raw deal out of it’ and in some ways were exploited, for them it was like, ‘Oh, wow, now I have to question everything about myself, my identity’ because it’s not just a job, it’s also an identity.”
“This kind of exploitation is because of the indoctrination that every, all minority, marginalized, underrepresented groups go through and it was exacerbated because it’s on this grand stage of the NFL, right?” said Elizabeth Ai, a producer-writer of the documentary. “I feel like this is one large problem among so many problems, it’s a national conversation, it’s a global conversation about how trying to victim-shame, to keep you in a lesser position in society is to shame these people so they don’t have the courage to step up again.”
But Thibodeaux-Fields did step up, and the Raiders reportedly settled with 100 cheerleaders for $1.25 million, and agreed to an increased wage for Raiderettes going forward.
As soon as Pinzone brought her lawsuit, the Bills suspended operation of the Jills and they have not returned. Though Pinzone filed in April 2014, there still has not been a decision rendered.
In an interesting twist, the NFL is also one of the defendants in that case. Lawyers found commissioner Roger Goodell’s signature on an agreement between the Bills and Citadel Broadcasting, which used to be in charge of the Jills before Mateczun’s production company took over. In essence, Goodell signed off on women doing dozens of hours of work on behalf of the team for no pay.
“It’s a product of careless indifference, both to a worker and to a woman, and I think part of an industry that perceives itself as being untouchable because of its popularity,” said Sean Cooney, Pinzone’s lawyer.
“There’s more than enough money to go around, but why do you find it necessary to take a group of women, in a sport that’s wildly popular, and make a decision to pay them far less than minimum wage? Because they can,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith says with a shrug. “And until somebody stops them, they will.”
Regardless of how any of us might feel about cheerleaders, the warped power dynamic and exploitation is what matters — it should not happen in any industry.
“Cheerleaders themselves as cultural phenomenon, as an American icon, it’s a very interesting space to inhabit because on the one hand they’re in a way very powerful, they have social capital,” Gu said. “But when Lacy’s lawsuit first came out I was shocked that they were paid less than minimum wage and sometimes not at all.
“It’s this weird combination of being hyper-visible, hyper-exploited in terms of their image and yet completely devalued at the same time, and to us that was a fascinating look at how all women are treated in the workplace in many ways.”
More than 10 years ago, an article in Forbes said:
“If John Mara and Bob Tisch want to squeeze more cash out of the New York Giants, they might check out the cheerleaders on the sidelines of their archrivals, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys.
“The Giants have never had cheerleaders. But maybe they should. Unlike the revenue-sharing program that spreads TV royalties across the league, money generated by cheerleader calendar sales, corporate appearances and clothing lines all stay with the home team. It’s a small amount – on average the 25 teams that have cheerleaders probably gross just over $1 million a season. But the costs are low, especially when you consider salaries can range between $200 and $1,000 a month per cheerleader. Deep-pocketed sponsors can pick up the tab for operating expenses.”
The article – “Pom-Poms And Profits” – (Sep 14, 2003, https://www.forbes.com/forbes/2003/0915/084.html?sh=3d3a193c51f7) said:
“With their hot pants, cowboy boots and tight shirts tied at the waist, the Dallas cheerleaders have been the league’s standard for three decades. But these women don’t do it for the money – they reportedly get only $50 a game and pose for a popular annual swimsuit calendar that sells for $4.99 on the team’s online store. For young, aspiring cheerleaders, the Cowboys run a summer camp that costs up to $160 for three days. Wary of giving away secrets, the Cowboys will not disclose financials for its cheerleading squad.
“Maybe that’s because the team knows it finally has some competition. Last year the Philadelphia Eagles put some lust into the City of Brotherly Love. Its lingerie calendar even features topless cheerleaders, a first for the image-conscious NFL. “We wanted to break away from the pack,” says Barbara Zaun, the Eagles’ director of cheerleading. This year the team is printing 20,000 copies that retail for $12.99. A Web site promotion drew 40,000 votes in one week to pick cover girl Brianne Salzano. During the season, the cheerleaders do as many as ten corporate gigs a week at $200 an hour per woman. Estimated revenues: $500,000. Or about enough to pay the signing bonus for a valuable position player.”
Thus, “small revenues” accumulate into big profit over years.
A report in The New York Times – “The College Athletes Who Are Allowed to Make Big Bucks: Cheerleaders” (Nov 29, 2020) – said about Jamie Andries, a member of the University of Oklahoma cheerleading team. She cheered at two Big 12 championship football games, the Orange Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the 2016 Final Four.
According to the report, “Andries was receiving thousands of dollars through sponsorship deals with Crocs, L’Oréal, American Eagle and Lokai.”
But the report did not mentioned the amount Crocs, L’Oréal, American Eagle and Lokai were making with the sponsored subject.
The report by Tess DeMeyer said:
“In 2011, for example, a scandal erupted at Ohio State when several football players sold awards, bowl-game memorabilia and other Buckeyes swag to the owner of a tattoo parlor, resulting in the resignation of the team’s coach, a skipped postseason and the loss of nine scholarships for the program.
College sports and commercial markets
“The rules have also challenged some superstars to choose between college sports and the commercial markets. Simone Biles, the Olympic gymnastics champion, gave up a scholarship offer from U.C.L.A. when the financial reality of turning pro made participating in college sports seem like too much of a sacrifice.”
The question is why do they sell?
The report said:
“The N.C.A.A. has long fought attempts to loosen its rules, but is now on a path toward allowing athletes to earn money from some endorsements, including through social media deals. The shift followed pressure from legislation in California and several other states, enacted by lawmakers who said the N.C.A.A.’s stance was no longer tenable given the significant growth of college sports as a moneymaking enterprise.”
The question is related to “college sports as a moneymaking enterprise.”
The report said:
“New rules are expected to be adopted by January and to take effect at the start of the 2021-22 academic year, creating a new market.”
The question is related to “creating a new market.”
The report said: “As Andries’s follower count grew, so did the deals. She has been in partnerships with Nissan, Amazon, FabFitFun, Colgate, SmileDirectClub and Urban Decay.”
There comes the connection, the partnership with “Nissan, Amazon, FabFitFun, Colgate, SmileDirectClub and Urban Decay”
The report mentioned, “Woolsey, who has a verified Instagram account with 255,000 followers, has posted sponsored content for the apparel company Reebok, the study-aid website Course Hero and the cosmetics company Vanity Planet. She can earn more than $5,000 per post through deals with larger companies, and sometimes receives $200 to promote smaller boutiques.”
It is marketing products with human.
“A lot of companies like stories of me sitting and talking about the product and making it seem like it’s not an ad,” Woolsey said.
The report said:
“Cheerleading does not qualify as a sport, at least not in the eyes of the N.C.A.A. and federal regulators, in part because some universities have tried to circumvent gender-equality rules by granting varsity status to cheer teams at the expense of conventionally competitive opportunities for women. Yet some cheer teams get perks from universities that are similar to those provided for other athletic programs.”
It is make money, either you or me, make money from cheers.
The report said:
“Some universities offer meal plans, small scholarships, access to athlete housing, tutoring services, early class registration and waivers of out-of-state fees.”
It is attracting some by offering few for attracting many others so that much come from other sources.
The report said:
“Cheerleaders may also receive free or discounted products as a result of companies’ sponsoring their teams. Jessica Pak, a former U.C.L.A. cheerleader, recalls receiving Vera Bradley bags and NARS makeup through sponsorships that were specifically tied to the spirit squad. The sponsors expected the gifted products to be used by the cheerleaders during games and to be promoted on the spirit team’s social media account.”
It is the same tact: Give some to some for making profit from the bigger portion. The fact comes out as the report cites Peg Fitzpatrick, a social media marketing expert and the co-author of The Art of Social Media: Power Tips for Power Users. Peg Fitzpatrick said “brands have focused on college cheerleaders for two particular reasons: The cheerleaders can directly reach a target demographic (people in their late teens and early- to mid-20s), and they present an opportunity for companies to tap into the excitement of college sports without N.C.A.A. interference. ‘The image of a cheerleader is kind of like Chevrolet and hot dogs and apple pie,’ Fitzpatrick said.”
The report said:
“Universities are preparing to assert more influence in an expanded market for college athletes. Texas, Nebraska and Louisiana State have partnered with marketing agencies to perhaps help broker some deals for student-athletes once the rules change.”
It is partnership with market, a market where humans are sold.
The report cites Woolsey and Andries who “hired agents while in college to help manage their endorsement deals, and Andries, now a social media manager for the apparel company Rebel Athletic, still makes extra income from deals related to her popularity from her cheer days.”
There is apparel company and cheers.
A version of this article appeared in print on Nov 29, 2020, Section A, Page 31 of the New York edition with the headline: They Cheer, And Rake In Ad Dollars On the Side.
A billion-dollar business
A New York Post report – “Cheerleading has evolved into a billion-dollar business” – by Richard Morgan on Apr 24, 2017 said:
“Cheerleading is no longer a sideline sport.”
There seems controversy with cheerleading – sports or no-sports. But no controversy with profit.
The report said:
“With roughly 4 million participants from elementary school through college, revenue estimated at more than $2 billion a year and national championships aired on ESPN, cheerleading has evolved into a big business.
“With more than 70 countries participating in cheerleading, there’s even talk of it becoming an Olympic sport in 2020.
“At the center of the cheerleading industry stands Jeff Webb, the founder of Varsity Brands, whose privately held company controls much of the fast-growing sport.
“Founded in 1974 by Webb, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader, Varsity is the No. 1 seller of cheerleading uniforms, the force behind the high school, college and international championships, an operator of summer cheerleading camps and the publisher of American Cheerleader, the industry’s official magazine.”
There comes a big market as the report said:
“The 2017 World Cheerleading Championships taking place this week at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando is expected to draw 2,500 participants from 70 countries. In 2009, there were 2,000 participants from 45 countries.
“Growing along with the industry, Varsity has seen its top line expand by a steady 7-to-8 percent a year.
“Webb, who also founded cheerleading’s governing body, is unapologetic about his company’s control over the business.”
“US participation rose 11.7 percent in 2016 to total 4.03 million active cheerleaders ages 6 and older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
“‘A double-digit increase suggests something big going on,’ SFIA President Tom Cove told The Post, especially in light of declining participation rates in football and basketball.
“Webb, however, is already positioning Varsity for life after domestic dominance.
“‘Global cheerleading is in its infancy,’ he said. ‘It should really take off in four to five years.’
“In the U.S., Varsity has used the courts to keep a tight fist on its control of the business.
“Last month, after seven years of litigation, Varsity Brands won a Supreme Court ruling against a rival, Star Athletica.
“The high court found that Varsity’s cheerleading uniform design, including the ubiquitous chevron, was protectable under US trademark law. Observers say the ruling will keep rivals from stealing away some business.
“Webb, and plenty of high fashion groups, applauded the court decision.”
The “tight fist of control”, the court-fight, etc. do not go without motive. What is that motive? There is the big promise – profit.
The report said:
“Varsity invested heavily in fashion designers to refresh cheerleading’s once-dowdy uniforms, which were once ‘plain-looking wool, with no performer fabric,’ Webb said.”
The competition for profit is wide as the report said:
“When not suing rival, Varsity has other means to squash the competition.
Tish Reynolds, who ran Just Briefs, which made a popular cheerleading uniform line, experienced Webb’s power firsthand. Varsity bought her company in 2010.
“‘Basically he wanted me out of the market,’ Reynolds said. ‘I have nothing bad to say about the man — but nobody’s more driven.’”
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
There are suggestions to increase profit. Cheerleading is an industry. In this industry, only cheerleaders do not exist. There is the gym owners. There is suggestions to increase profit by the gym owners.
An article by Shawn Herrera, MBAFollow, Organizational Behavior Professor, Head of Corporate Relations & Business Development – Pepperdine Graziadio Business School, in Linkedin said:
“Many puzzled Cheer Gym Owners say to me, ‘we have plenty of projected profits in our budget, but our actual take-home income is nowhere near the amount of those projected profits. Why are the projections so wrong?’ The answer is usually, ‘your projections aren’t necessarily wrong, they just don’t account for the leaks in your profit pipes.’
“‘Leaks in your profit pipes’ is best illustrated by this article’s title graphic. Imagine your ‘Gym profits’ are drops of water that must travel thru a pipe on their way to your (the Gym Owner’s) personal bank account in order to end up as ‘take-home income’. If all the water put in the pipes does not come out the other end, it’s because it ‘leaked out’ somewhere along the way. The common fix Gym Owners default to is, ‘we need to put more water (profits) into the pipes’. Yes, more profits are great…..but the immediate solution should first be to ‘fix the leaks in the pipes’.”
The article “6 Ways Cheer Gym Owners Give Away Their Profits” published on September 11, 2016 identified “6 most common leaks (how Gym Owners give away their profits”.
These are, according to the article, sponsoring athletes, overspending on choreography and music, not charging for crossovers, customer accounts unpaid (Bad Debt), “cash flow” spending instead of “income” spending, theft.
- Sponsored Athletes
In a previous LinkedIn article titled “The Hidden Cost of Sponsoring Customers”, I discussed the financial dangers of sponsoring athletes. The basic premise being “it is not FREE to provide services (tuition) for FREE; and it’s really not FREE to provide products (comp fees, clothing, uniform, etc) for FREE”. Assuming an industry standard 25% gross profit margin, 1 sponsored athlete erases all the profits from 3 paying athletes. Therefore, an All Star program of 100 kids, where 25 are sponsored, likely makes ZERO profit.
- Everyone must pay.
- Sponsored athletes need to be virtually non-existent.
- If sponsored athletes need to be added to prevent team collapse, try to stay to no more than 5% of total athletes.
- Overspending on Choreography & Music
There are two ways Gym Owners overspend on choreography and music:
1) Spending more during the season than budgeted
- a) paying choreographers for additional change/clean-up sessions
- b) paying for new routines (e. new “Summit/Worlds routine”)
- c) paying for music change after music change
2) Forming teams so small that the “per kid” variable revenue collected does not equal/exceed the “per team” fixed expense paid.
- a) Choreography: Charge $200/kid for choreography, create a team of only 10 paying kids (crossovers don’t count, of course), but spend $3,000 on choreography. This is spending $1,000 more than collected ($200/kid x 10 kids = $2,000 revenue – $3,000 choreography = $1,000 loss).
- b) Music: Charge $50/kid for music on that same team of only 10 paying kids, but spend $1,000 on music. This is spending $500 more than collected ($50/kid x 10 kids = $500 revenue – $1,000 music = $500 loss).
- Stay on a firm budget.
- If a team is too small to cover $3,000 in choreography, don’t spend $3,000. That team gets less expensive choreography, gets re-used choreography, or those kids get put on other larger teams.
- Not Charging Crossovers
Yes, crossovers may be helping their crossover team with their presence. However, they are also getting additional benefits by getting to compete on 2 teams. Crossovers do not cost the gym as much as regular athletes, BUT they do add the “hard costs” of crossover competition entry fees (~$300/season). Customers need to pay for those benefits they receive even if it only means covering those “hard costs” of crossover entry fees.
A Gym Owner paying the $300/athlete entry fees for 20 crossovers = $6,000. Is it unreasonable to ask crossovers to pay the $300 for their crossover entry fees?….NO! Uncomfortable?…..Maybe. Unreasonable?….No! And remember that 25% gross profit margin calculation……to make up for that $6,000 spent on crossover entry fees, you need $24,000 in new sales ($24,000 x 25% = $6,000).
- Crossovers must at least cover their “hard costs” (i.e. crossover entry fees), if not also a discounted crossover team tuition for the “privilege” of being on a crossover team.
- Customer Accounts Unpaid (aka Bad Debt)
Customers will try to take advantage of you. Customers will pretend to be your friend so they can later take advantage of that relationship. Customers will lie about their intentions to “pay later” just to get you to let their child stay on the team. Customers will try to leave without paying their past due bill. Only 10-20% of your customers will fall into this “deadbeat” category, but allowing that 10-20% to successfully not pay their bills is enough to put you out of business.
Why is bad debt from unpaid customer accounts so difficult to recover from? Because you cannot make-up for a $1,000 in bad debt by simply getting another $1,000 in new sales. Assuming the industry average 25% gross profit margin on your all-star cheer program, you only make $250 in profit on $1,000 in new sales. To make-up for that $1,000 in bad debt you actually need $4,000 in new sales (25% profit on $4,000 is that $1,000). Realize just how difficult it is to replace the income from that bad debt from that customer that walked out the door.
- No customer gets extensive “credit”, no matter how “good” their story/excuse.
- Your “friends” don’t get to not pay their bill just because “you’ll understand”.
- Account balance due = no product (“No pay –> no play”).
- Have a solid contract…..Small Claims court works wonders.
- It is not YOUR job to pay for THEIR kid.
- “Cash flow” spending vs “Income” spending
The timing of Revenue (i.e. fees collected) does not always match the timing of Expenses (i.e. bills due). For example, the gym may collect uniform payments from customers in June but then not have to pay the uniform vendor until August. Spending based on “what’s in the bank that month” (cash flow) rather than on the amount of income that was actually earned that month will get you into trouble.
- Must use a budget.
- Must run cash flow projections to know when revenues and expenses will occur.
- Open a 2nd bank account (in addition to primary operating account) to hold revenue that needs to be earmarked for future expenses (i.e. uniforms, competition entry fees).
- Try to pay-off the current season’s “hard cost” bills (i.e. choreography, music, uniforms, warm-ups, competition fees, etc) as soon as possible. Money left in the bank after those bills are paid is more likely to be true income.
No one ever wants to think that someone we trust could betray us. But our desire to not believe it could happen is not enough to make it not happen. We cannot hope to prevent all theft from happening, but we can try our best to catch theft quickly when/if it does happen. Theft by those we trust never starts out big. Like a drug addiction, it starts out small but then grows over time.
Anyone who has the potential to interact with money in the gym is a candidate for theft. Most of these candidates are likely coaches, other staff, and parent volunteers (i.e. team moms). Your worry should not be focused on the potential thief using a gun. Your worry should be focused on the thief using a smile who is someone you trust.
- Gym owner must be FULLY knowledgeable of all gym finances. Delegation of accounting duties can be OK, but gym owner MUST be literate in the accounting systems.
- Never let 1 person be solely in charge of the finances.
- Only specific, assigned staff may receive payments.
- ALL cash payments must have a written receipt & end-of-night cash deposit slip amount must match actual cash collected that day.
- Gym owner must do scheduled, and random, audits to search for fraud/theft.
- Like President Reagan said, “Trust but Verify.”
The economy finds cheer as commodity, which makes profit. In this industry, the human is at the center. It is not all humans, it is a particular type of human that can be sold to other humans. In this industry, there is sports, there is calendar, there is apparel. The human at the center of the industry puts own labor, physical labor and mental labor, and mental labor needs physical labor also. As physical labor, mental labor also needs foods, and foods are bought from market. The human needs other commodities – clothing, shelter, medicine. These commodities are from market, which is always uncertain with its behavior to buyer. There is uncertainty in life – income, medical treatment, safe shelter, future. These are pressing persons to run in markets – market for commodities, market for employment, market for medical treatment, market for future safety. The cheer industry makes profit while it shows the humans running the wheels of the cheer industry are also making money. It shows: Me making money you making money, me happy you happy. But the question “who gets how much” is kept hidden, as is kept hidden the question – human is turned into commodity, cheer is turned into commodity. There is profit from cheers, from parts of human body. Is it something else other than a degeneration of humanity?
And, thefts are discussed and analyzed, but appropriation, one kind of theft, is not discussed. The working people, here, the cheerleaders are appropriated, and that goes beyond discussion. The bigger theft, the money taken out from people’s pockets by showing cheers, goes beyond discussion.
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