Game Changers: American Elite

It’s not uncommon for parents to become close when their kids cheer together. What is unusual is for that friendship to blossom into a full-fledged, profitable and fun business. 

For Wanda and Gary Whipkey, Caryn Hale and Laura Dudley of Tallmadge, Ohio, starting American Elite Cheerleading in 2005 made sense because of their combined enthusiasm and experience volunteering at the all-star gym where their daughters trained. They just weren’t the ones who came up with the idea.

A bit of background: the gym owner they’d invested their time with wasn’t eager for bigger numbers despite them tripling after the parents started helping coach. When the Whipkeys, Hale and Dudley met Elaine Pascal of New Jersey’s World Cup All Stars at a conference, she remarked that the four of them should consider opening a gym.

“She said, ‘You could do this on your own,’” recalls Wanda Whipkey. Coming from the owner of one of the country’s most successful cheer gyms, those words resonated. Little more than a week later, the four budding entrepreneurs had a loan, a building, equipment and clients.

Now, with American Elite Cheer heading into its 10th year this July, the owners and their athletes have plenty to be proud of besides longevity. The all-star cheer program, which started out with 50 athletes, now boasts around 300. They’ve been nominated for the USASF’s Chairman’s Cup twice, have received full paid bids to U.S. Finals and have been Worlds bid recipients for the last seven years.

The gym’s Cheer Charity Classic event gives them even more to rally around. To help support the Akron Children’s Hospital’s Reach Out and Read program, American Elite hosts an annual competition that has donated around $150,000 total and collected tens of thousands of new and gently used books for kids in need. Giving back is a big part of the gym’s culture with many ongoing service projects.

However, American Elite’s success hasn’t come without growing pains. Early on the owners realized that all-star tuition wasn’t going to sustain the business, particularly since their season runs June to March to allow for a training break. Whipkey reached out to other gym owners to tap into their success strategies, but “there wasn’t anything they could point to that made them successful other than that they had these routines that stuck.” She knew it would take more than killer choreography and top notch coaching for the gym to succeed financially.

Drawing on her prior experience in the consumer electronics industry, Wanda pushed to hire a consultant in 2006. Though initially nervous about the cost, the team ended up hiring Frank Sahlein from 3rd Level Consulting, and his recommendations paid off.

On his suggestion, Whipkey and crew turned their energies toward the budget and alternative ways to generate income. They diversified by utilizing the large space and equipment to start new programs—particularly the non-competitive American Elite Kids recreational program, which proved to be very successful. Building on that success, the owners created additional programs, including preschool outreach, parents’ night out events, Saturday classes and birthday party services. They also began renting out the gym to recreational cheer teams for their tryouts and hosting a for-profit competition for high schools and recreational teams.

The next year they added a separate choreography business, DZine, and have plans for a summer camp this year. There are now more than 2,400 clients who utilize the gym’s various programs. All-star cheer still makes up the biggest part of the gym’s revenue, but the rec classes are a close second. The fastest-growing program is the preschool outreach with its mobile gym, which is due in part to its director’s ambition.

“It’s not hard to come up with ideas for how to diversify,” shares Whipkey, who hopes to open a second location. “The difficult part is finding the key people and partnering with them, having people in your organization to problem solve and take something and make it a career.”

They fine-tuned the organizational structure with concise job descriptions. Putting dependable, dedicated directors in place to focus on key components of the business enabled ownership to remove itself from the daily tasks and work on bigger-picture projects. “Once we did that, our business grew about 150 percent,” says Whipkey.

While that was all good advice, there were still more tweaks made along the way. The American Elite Kids program, they realized, needed rebranding. “Our building is full of trophies, but we had to think about how to reach those moms who don’t necessarily want their kids to compete,” says Whipkey. They hired a branding company to help drive the message home that the program’s focus was health and fitness.

“One of the things I like to tell people is give yourself the gift of having a coach,” Whipkey says, whether that comes in the form of consultant, external company or actual coaches at your gym. “We felt we should be able to figure it out from our combined experiences, but we realized we did need the outside help.”

-Arrissia Owen