Unlike many other sports, cheerleading has a rather short history in the United States. Cheerleading technically came to the U.S. in the 1880s—it originated in Great Britain two decades prior—but it wasn’t until the 1920s that females began participating in the sport. By the 1940s, women were the primary cheerleaders. Fast forward to the 1960s, and most high schools and colleges around the country had a cheerleading squad.
During the 1970s, cheerleading continued to gain ground—the first college cheerleading championship was televised in 1978—but the 1980s was when cheerleading as it’s best known, with showy dance routines and incredible stunts, really began. In 1999, cheerleading was officially recognized as a sport, and hasn’t slowed down as it continues to showcase incredibly skilled athletes within the three disciplines: traditional school cheer, club/all-star cheer and the growing sport of STUNT, which focuses on the technical and athletic components of cheer, including partner stunts, pyramids, basket tosses, group jumps and tumbling.
“There are so many benefits depending on which discipline you participate in,” said USA Cheer executive director Lauri Harris. “Whether it’s cheering on the sideline for your high school or college sports team, being an ambassador of your school or organization or taking the mat to compete against another team. Cheerleading instills confidence, teamwork, and athleticism with fun.”
USA Cheer was established in 2007 as the national governing body for sport cheering in the United States, and it’s recognized by the International Cheer Union. Since it started nearly 15 years ago, USA Cheer has worked to promote safety and education for cheer, to help grow and develop interest and participation in the sport, and to represent the United States in international cheer competitions. With approximately three million cheerleaders nationwide, ranging in age from 5 to 25, the organization is constantly working to provide for a better experience in the sport and keep it as safe as possible. “We are constantly focusing on skill safety and increasing awareness in the area of athlete protection,” Harris added. “We updated our courses this past year and created a new parent course. We are also expanding resources and education in the adaptive space and looking to expand more in the youth area. We’re also rapidly expanding STUNT, which recently was recommended for emerging sport status with the NCAA.”
While focusing heavily on growing the sport and keeping athletes safe, USA Cheer also holds multiple events each year. The combines are open to high school juniors and seniors, as well as junior college athletes, interested in cheering in college.
The Dominance of Orlando
While the USA Cheer combines are held across the country, one destination that has established itself as a top spot for cheer and dance competitions is Orlando, Fla. The city’s Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) averages three to five all-star cheer events each year, with each event ranging from 8,000 to 10,000 in attendance. Besides the amount of hotels and attractions in the area, attracting cheer and dance competitions to the venue is easy thanks to the OCCC’s options for competition space, including exhibit halls, ballrooms and a theater.
“It allows groups to design their competition based on their specific needs,” said OCCC executive director Mark Tester. “We also have an extensive inventory of risers, which allows for multiple performance and competition areas required for larger competitions. The OCCC also provides ample onsite parking, which allows for teams to easily drive in. Many teams stay at one of our four connected hotels, and parents love the ability to easily walk to and from the hotels.”
Cheer and dance has become a significant economic impact to the city each year because of the established events that return to the OCCC annually. Spirit Cheer averages a $6 million impact, while March’s American Open Cheer had an economic impact of more than $8 million. Another top event is the Open Championship Series, which brought in 21,000 total attendees at the end of April and produced an economic impact of nearly $27 million.
Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex has also emerged as a top destination for cheer and dance competitions. The venue’s premier partner, Varsity Spirit, hosts three competitions there each year between January and February, plus two competitions each month in March, April, and May. In all, it hosts nine cheer and dance events on site each year. “The arena at the sports complex is a multi-sport venue that was designed specifically with cheer and dance in mind, providing critical spaces for warmups, judging, spectators and multiple competitions,” said Walt Disney World Resort’s director of youth, celebrations and events Charles Thomas. “Additionally, the cast at the sports complex are leaders in event planning, operation and execution, plus there’s the unique benefit of ESPN’s broadcast capabilities and the family vacation offerings of Walt Disney World Resort.”
Rounding out Orlando’s cheer and dance offerings is Osceola Heritage Park. The facility typically hosts upwards of 10 cheer and dance events each year, usually between October and April. Osceola Heritage Park features the Silver Spurs Arena, a 33,946-square-foot venue that typically hosts the sport and features 7500 permanent seats. Situated next door is the Events Center, which adds 47,850 square feet of space for an event.
“The Arena features all of the upgrades desired to host a competition, but it’s not as massive as many 20,000-seat venues, making it easier to navigate and get into,” said Osceola Heritage Park general manager Robb Larson. “We’re also easy to get to, right off the Florida Turnpike, with parking right outside.”
The Emergence of Myrtle Beach
Myrtle Beach, S.C., has become another popular destination for cheer and dance events as well. The city annually has grown its base of annual cheer and dance events, such as Showstoppers, Varsity Spirit Sports, Varsity Cheer Ltd., Varsity CanAm Nationals and Maximum Cheer and Dance, said Visit Myrtle Beach executive director of sports tourism Jonathan Paris. Most of those events are held at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center or the John T. Rhodes Myrtle Beach Sports Center. “For all the reasons that make Myrtle Beach a leading sports tourism destination, the same can be said for cheer and dance,” said Paris. “The Myrtle Beach area features a 60-mile-long beach, two state parks and Broadway at the Beach, a 350-acre entertainment and shopping complex, which is the most popular attraction in South Carolina.”
Pop Warner National Championships
With approximately 100,000 members nationwide, Pop Warner Little Scholars hosts a major cheer and dance event annually known as the the Pop Warner National Championships. Historically held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex but recently moved to the OCCC, the event typically features approximately 450 cheer and dance teams during the six-day event. This past December, Pop Warner attracted 2,500 to the OCCC for its event, which was paired down due to COVID-19. “The OCCC is a huge, modern facility that offers so much space,” said Pop Warner Little Scholars executive director Jon Butler. “That space offers tremendous flexibility. While the 2020 championship was much smaller than a normal year, we’re expecting growth and getting back to normal numbers in the next academic year, and it helps that at the OCCC we had a wing of the facility to ourselves.”
Varsity Spirit Competitions
Varsity Spirit, the largest cheer and dance event provider in the country, hosts numerous competitions and events each year, often in Orlando. Its events range from high school cheer teams and college cheer and dance to national dance teams and all-star teams. Like with most organizations, Varsity Spirit had to rearrange much of its 2020 schedule—pushing many events back to earlier this year. To help with the craziness that COVID-19 caused, the organization added a virtual division to its events this year.
“There is still a number of schools or states that aren’t allowing teams to travel, and we didn’t want our athletes to miss out on the chance to be recognized for their hard work and contribution to their schools and communities,” explained Varsity Spirit president Bill Seely. “This year, we held a virtual national championship alongside the in-person championship. The biggest event we’ve included in the virtual division this year was the NCA All Star Championship, which was held in Dallas in February,” Seely added “It’s consistently one of the top three events Dallas hosts every year. The teams in the virtual division performed from their own gyms around the country. It’s certainly not the same as a live event, but it allowed for their participation, as well as the chance to reward these incredible young people for their relentless dedication and talent.”
Like the other organizations and facilities, Varsity Spirits has taken all of the precautions and safety protocols needed to get back to its events and the excitement has shown through with the many athletes and participants in attendance. “It’s been tough on students over the past year with so much isolation, not getting to physically attend school or participate in live events,” Seely said. “With the events we’re hosting, you can see the excitement in their faces that they are here and around their friends. There’s so much benefit for them in being back together, not to mention the benefits like teamwork and discipline they get from participating in the sport itself.”