billy smith

State of the Union 2014

State of the Union 2014

Tammy Van Vleet, GSSA and Aloha Spirit Productions

For the second year in a row, CheerProfessional tapped four of the industry’s cheer “leaders” for a spirited panel discussion on our industry and its future. Check out our “State of the Union” panel for 2014 and read what they have to say:

There seem to be a lot of varying opinions about what needs to happen with Worlds—from venue changes to divisions to bids. What’s your take on the future of Worlds?

Van Vleet: Being from the West, we’ve always felt our teams have been geographically challenged. When you give bids of $650 to an athlete from Miami and another from LA, that’s a huge difference for getting to Orlando. That said, our teams have been able to come out and win and perform well. Personally, I would like to see the location move to include additional parts of the country; I know there are a lot of bigger convention centers that could accommodate this event.

Billy Smith, Spirit Celebration and Amazing! Championships

Smith: Steve Peterson has done a great job coordinating the many companies involved in Worlds. To use a biblical analogy, the problem is now that Worlds has become the “Golden Calf”—I’ve seen it change our industry. It has ruined friendships and caused a lot of dissension in our industry. Now that it’s in its 10th year, I’m not sure there is an event producer out there that doesn’t wish it would go away, but no one will get out because they’re afraid of losing the teams. I’ve been very blessed: my teams that I’ve spent the big bucks on have won gold, silver and bronze, but my numbers of participating teams trying to get bids go down because people don’t want to compete with the gyms that win year after year.  I can also promise you a lot of gyms have been hurt by it; small gyms have lost so many kids to large gyms. There are also gyms that are scholarshipping everyone so they can pull kids from all over.

What are the emerging event trends?

Smith: We’re seeing a trend of specialty events, such as the Majors, the Revolution, Amazing! and the Champions League. As our industry evolves, we are definitely seeing event producers and gym owners get more creative in an effort to try and lure customer dollars. Everything has to evolve, and [this trend] is creating lots of options. Also, I believe everyone is creating something different so that Worlds isn’t the end-all and be-all. With the Summit, Majors, the One, Amazing, etc. brands have positioned themselves so that they don’t need Worlds.  If Worlds goes away, we’ll all be ready for it.

The United States Cheer Officials Survey and the formation of the NACCC judging committee has sparked a lot of conversation about conditions and compensations for judges. What are your thoughts on the way the industry treats our judges?

Kathy Penree, CNY Storm All-Stars (Albany, NY and Syracuse, NY)

Penree: This is something we discussed at length in Doral. There are two sides [to the issue]: the first is that we need to help judges be protected as far as compensation and working conditions—making sure judges are rested, fed and paid well. We also need to ensure event producers are hiring trained judges. Some of the event producers really stepped up this summer with more in-depth training, and I think we’ll all see great results from that during the season.

However, the other component is that the judges who sign up for the events need to fulfill their responsibility. When judges don’t show up or need a last-minute replacement, [EPs] are sometimes forced to go further down in the pool of judges as far as experience level and knowledge. That’s part of the problem that I go through as an event producer.

Van Vleet: I saw that survey, and I don’t agree with it because we don’t treat our judges that way. We go to great lengths to choose flights and hotels that are more than satisfactory, provide ground transportation, have meals brought in, etc. There are so many event producers—judges can decide where they spend their weekends working, gym owners can decide where they spend money to compete.

Where do you stand on the universal scoresheet?

Penree: Kristen [Rosario] and John [Metz] are leading this effort on behalf of the NACCC; we’re going to try shadowing it at events this season in hopes of rolling it out for 2014-2015 season. It will be easier for us as coaches and gym owners if we can train our teams to one scoresheet. I also like that it will bring back the creativity that’s been taken away by the standard routine. Without divulging what’s on the scoresheet, I know that’s one of their goals.

Van Vleet: I am in favor of a universal scoresheet because it would eliminate teams having to change their routines from weekend to weekend. That has to be frustrating for kids and coaches to be shooting at a moving target. However, I feel like [GSSA] has continually improved our judging and scoring system and we are not involved in the development of the universal scoresheet so I’m not able to provide insight on this.

Brian Harris, United Talent Cheer

Smith: Now that everyone is under USASF safety guidelines, it’s been a huge relief for the coaches. However, now that it’s evolving into the scoresheet, I’m worried that USASF will say all judges have to be trained through them. I don’t want them to set the amount I pay my judges; that should be up to event producers. Also, coaches are likely to be frustrated because they will expect the same scores every week—and that’s not going to happen. Judges evaluate differently; we are a subjective sport. However, I won’t say that it’s not going to work because it has never been tried; if the coaches want to try it, I’m game.

How do you feel about the direction of the USASF as our industry’s governing body?

Harris: I believe there needs to be a governing body, but anymore in this industry, it seems as though everyone is out for themselves. Across the board with competitions, USASF, the biggest companies and Varsity, I think almost every aspect has lost perspective on what the objective is and what most of us are attempting to do. Are we in this for ourselves or are we trying to better our athletes and the sport? When you look at these kids coming in, they just want to learn the basics and have a good experience; most are not familiar with Worlds or cheerlebrities. I feel like the industry is moving in a direction that could eventually have a negative impact if it keeps going the way it’s going. I’d like to see the governing body become more focused on the true purpose and meaning behind what this sport should be.

Smith: Paying off the loan was step one, the new building was step two, but what’s wrong with USASF now is that the Board of Directors is out of balance. It is so Varsity-heavy that until they have an elected board, it’s still a smoke-and-pony game. Even though Jam Brands and the IEP have many teams going to Worlds, they have considerably less votes [than Varsity]. The coaches got another non-voting position last year, but the number of voting members is still Varsity-heavy.

Van Vleet: We are a member of USASF and we choose to support that. I don’t like to tear apart something that I’m a member of—I’d rather offer solutions and make something better instead trying to splinter off and do something separate. We should be united as an industry.

Any other USASF developments you’d like to comment on?

Van Vleet: I’ve been happy to see the credentialing program evolve, but there’s still room for improvement. The requirements should be a little bit more stringent; we can’t mess around when we’re dealing with kids. Our sport needs to be safe and legitimate—and the faster, the better. I think every coach needs to be credentialed and have a background check. This year, we’re making sure all of our staff [meets those requirements]; the goal is to be leaders in the industry and go one step further to make sure the environment is safe for our participants.

Penree: I like that the industry is paying attention to image [with regulations on uniforms and cover-ups] and that we’re taking a stand in promoting a good image for our athletes. Unfortunately, it’s something we have to self-police because the USASF doesn’t have the manpower to walk around and enforce those policies. I’d like to see more programs take the responsibility among themselves to do so. It’s also about how the outside world perceives the cheer world; people don’t understand when they see children walk around the mall in a sports bra. We need to keep the image respectful and athletic.

What’s your stance on the cheerlebrity phenomenon?

Harris: I don’t feel [all-star cheerleading] is as healthy as it used to be. One of the biggest problems is that too much emphasis is being placed on the wrong things at competition. To look the part, young athletes feel pressure to be the prettiest or wear the most makeup, the smallest/tightest uniform, the most glitter. The industry allows for glorifying elements of the sport that aren’t meant to be glorified. Athletes should be spotlighted for their athletic abilities at every level, [but] the idea of “cheerlebrities” creates an expectation and status that few will reach. Kids can’t feel good about themselves because they’re trying to live up to the image of what the perfect all-star cheerleader should be—instead of focusing on their own training.

Van Vleet: I have mixed feelings about it. If [cheerlebrity status] is used in a positive way, it can be very good for our industry, but I’ve seen situations where individuals put themselves above the team, and it doesn’t sit well. There are also safety considerations—this year, we made sure to have barricades around stages so kids can get to and from them safely, as well as maintain their focus on the team competition. We have to think about that because of the visibility these kids have; people are so excited and want pictures and autographs and 15-year-olds don’t know how to navigate that.

Smith: I think it’s unfair to the kids what the magazines have created. I feel sorry for those kids that are cheerlebrities because there is nowhere to go with it. It doesn’t help you get a job, and once it’s over, your life will never be normal. These kids are on a pedestal and, if they do anything wrong, it will be devastating to see how they handle it. Social media can be very cruel to everyone, especially teenagers.

What are some of the other issues affecting gyms and athletes?

Penree: There are discussions about whether [our sport] is too demanding. If you’re walking in off the street and don’t have elite tumbling, there is a lot of pressure to [obtain] that skill, but it’s not something that comes quickly. People have to be invested and train for several years. Some are intimidated by the skill level that they perceive that they need to have; they don’t always realize that there are other levels and that everyone can cheer.

Another discussion we have at NACCC and [the USASF] board is making sure athletes aren’t getting everything at such a young age. If you’ve been to Worlds three times by age 14, you’re like, “Okay I’ll do something else now.” The retention rate is a concern.

Harris: The ever-growing and changing industry puts pressure on both kids and gym owners to keep up. From rules to divisions and even the latest trends, athletes and their gyms must continually adapt to stay ahead of the game. Also, because gyms need revenue, many times athletes are pushed into a competitive program before they are ready, causing unneeded stress on the athletes and their parents. Emphasis on competition pushes gym owners into attempting to build multiple competitive teams rather than diversify—which can be financially detrimental. In my experience, all-star cheerleading is not the driving force behind our program; our stability is created with non-competitive/rec programs that keep costs lower and gain more numbers.

What are some other growth areas emerging for gym owners?

Harris: Obviously, there are many more cheerleaders to be had in Levels 1-3. Levels 4-5 are more select. As gym owners, if all we do is put emphasis on building a Level 5 program, we will eventually fall off because we are not nurturing our other growth areas (including prep teams and non-competitive programs). A major mistake is the approach of making the elite cheerleaders the most important team in the program. It is hard to sustain the “best” team year after year when you don’t have kids coming up from the other levels.

Penree: Gyms are finding that they need to diversify their business since there is such a large overhead with these facilities. Lots of gym owners now realize it’s necessary to do more as far as offering more camps, clinics and classes to outside kids. Training high school teams is a very successful approach and one that every gym owner needs to pursue. Also, [another consideration is] adding things like Pilates/dance or after-school programs; one successful gym in Ohio has even added a pre-school.

What’s the bottom line?

Van Vleet: We should all take this amazing opportunity of doing what we love every day very seriously. Don’t take it for granted; at the end of the day, it’s about the kids at the events. I think we have to be very thankful and protective of the kids involved. I had the opportunity to speak at my high school’s graduation ceremony, and they wanted me to talk about how I took an activity I did in high school and turned it into my career. Let’s be very careful with what we have, because I think it’s pretty amazing.

Universal Scoresheet: Will It Ever Happen?

Talk of a universal scoresheet has permeated the industry for years. In 2010, the Independent Event Producers (IEP) made an official recommendation to the USASF stating that its 22 independent companies felt a universal scoresheet would be in the industry’s best interest. “We have made great strides toward legitimizing our sport and scoring is one area where we have not achieved legitimacy,” says Cheer America’s Colleen Little, who sits on the board for IEP. “The IEP recognized that our sport had reached the point where a universal scoresheet was the next logical step.”

Though the initiative stalled, talk resurfaced at the NACCC meeting in Doral last May, and in October, the NACCC released a position statement from its Universal All-Star Judging System Summit. “In order to enhance the integrity of the industry, the NACCC along with event producers have implemented a plan to develop a Universal Scoring System for All Star Cheerleading competitions,” the statement reads. “To ensure quality, fairness and consistency, a committee made up of judges, coaches and event producers will utilize their expertise and experience to create a structured scoring system to benefit the athletes, coaches, spectators and event producers. The development process for the system is scheduled to take up to 24 months which will include careful analysis of available systems, assessment and editing.”

As development and discussion continue over this 24-month timeline, the debate continues among some circles about whether it will truly be beneficial. Karlette Fettig of Indiana Elite sees both sides. “From the gym’s perspective, it would be easier not to have to worry about the differences between competitions; once you put a routine together, you know you won’t have any nuances from competition to competition,” she says. “However, I do understand from an event producer’s perspective that it takes away a piece of their individuality. I’m not sure it’s fair to them.”

Spirit Celebration’s Billy Smith is one event producer who’s all for it. “I am so excited to see the coaches getting organized and taking control of their industry,” says Smith. “This idea has been presented for years and shot down by the USASF without the support of the larger event producers. Now that the coaches are leading the crusade, I think it can really happen.”