Join Club Momme for exclusive access to giveaways, discounts and more!

Sign up

Cheerleaders Rally to Be Back on Top After Extreme Participation Drop

Photograph by Getty Images

When Shanell McMiller arrives to coach her cheerleading team, 17 bright-eyed young girls greet her with enthusiasm. McMiller has been coaching the University Area Bulls, an Optimist cheerleading team in Tampa, for a little more than a year and has seen her fair share of ponytails, booties and glitter eyeshadow. What McMiller hasn’t seen in quite a while is a full roster of cheerleaders.

“It is so hard for me to find girls,” McMiller says. “I get out there and I recruit. I stand on the corners with my team doing carwashes. We go out into the community to invite people to join us. I have 17 girls right now but I should have 80 to cover the four divisions.”

RELATED: Most Dangerous Sports for Kids

2004 boasted the highest number of reported cheerleading participants in the survey’s history — 4.1 million. By 2008, that number had dwindled to a mere 2.9 million.

McMiller says she does remember a time when her cheerleading squads were plentiful and she ran herself dizzy trying to keep up with all of their vibrant personalities. Things changed, McMiller says, around 2008. This year, coincidently, is the same year that the National Sporting Goods Association’s (NGSA) Sports Participation Report showed that cheerleading participation had reached an all-time low.

The 30-year-old survey, which offers the sports industry a way to track interest and activity among 51 different sports, randomly selects individuals ages 7 to 50 to share their level of sports participation. According to the survey, 2004 boasted the highest number of reported cheerleading participants in the survey’s history — 4.1 million. By 2008, that number had dwindled to a mere 2.9 million.

What happened in 2008 that led to the decline of interest in cheerleading? Cheer Coach McMiller believes there is only one answer.

“It's about finances,” she explains. “Cheerleading is an expensive sport. When I suggested that we lower the price of the fees, more girls signed up but it still isn’t what it used to be.”

Fees for uniform, shoes, bags, hair bows, booties, socks and competitions can sometimes cost parents hundreds of dollars per season. By 2008, the US economy was in the midst of experiencing the worst financial and economic crash in more than 75 years.

Over the years that followed this economic crash, the country eventually shifted from an attitude of despair and set itself on a path toward a more stable economic base, offering citizens the confidence to begin spending again. According to more recent NSGA Sports Participation Reports, since 2008 the sport of cheerleading has seen a steady increase, slowly creeping back to what it once was a decade ago, yet not quite hitting the mark.

Since the economic downturn seems to have impacted the popularity of cheerleading, did the upswing help with the resurgence in interest? According to Jennifer Cronin of Cheerleading.com, it has.

Over the last five years, the cheerleading uniform and accessory retailer has experienced an increase in sales, in particular, the audience participation items like rooter poms and mini megaphones. It seems that people now have the interest and flexibility in spending to root for their favorite teams or even cheer on the cheerleaders who compete. Cheerleading.com also makes an interesting observation, reporting that the sport has become more inclusive as they now receive orders from teams who nurture children with special needs.

'With the competitiveness and high cost of college these days, students rely on sports to help get them into college as many universities will offer scholarships for women athletes, including cheerleading.'

What else can be done to save a sport that was once considered a favorite activity for the All-American girl? If Patty Ann Romero has anything to do with it, she will continue to promote All-Star cheering as the next big thing in cheerleading.

Romero is the co-owner and head coach of the Central Jersey All-Stars, a competitive cheerleading organization based in Kenilworth, N.J. She’s built CJA into one of the most successful cheerleading programs in the country and travels the country with her teams to compete in multiple competitions each year. All-Star cheerleading is not associated with a specific school or team, but rather a private organization or gym. The participants train to compete, not perform at games and cheer on a team. There are also multiple teams with multiple skills levels, rather than just one school team. All-Star cheerleading is a big, big business.

“Since starting the Central Jersey All-Stars in 1996, I have only seen the sport grow,” Romero shares. “We started out a small operation and have grown to have 14 teams. Each year, more and more girls try out to compete with us. I think it’s because high schools today are required to offer more programs for women’s sports, which has made it very common for girls to participate in all types of sports. Also, with the competitiveness and high cost of college these days, students rely on sports to help get them into college as many universities will offer scholarships for women athletes, including cheerleading.”

Romero believes the flexibility that All-Star Cheerleading offers entices young athletes to participate and remain loyal to the sport. Romero boasts that in her region, events have to close out their registration due to capacity of attendance five months prior to events, and participation has more than doubled over the last two years as athletes choose All-Star cheerleading over more traditional avenues like pop warner, recreation and high school enrollment.

RELATED: Don't Be a Crazy Sports Parents

Maybe this explains why McMiller’s Tampa-based Optimist team isn’t growing as fast as she would hope. Even still, the 34-year-old coach prefers that kids find their way to fitness and fun regardless of the activity or they will really miss out on an important part of life.

“Young girls who don’t cheer are missing out on so much,” McMiller insists. “They're missing out on fun. They’re interacting with other girls. They’re learning their personality and other people's personality. When they don’t participate, they’re missing out on life.”

Share this on Facebook?

More from kids