Motionwear

Cheer Athletics

Spotlight: Ambrel Brannon of Cheer Athletics

Spotlight: Ambrel Brannon of Cheer Athletics

This December, we’re running a series of spotlights on athletes-turned-cheer professionals. Meet Ambrel Mitchell of Cheer Athletics!

Most people don’t equate cheerleading with computer science, but global systems engineer and former all-star athlete Ambrel Mitchell Brannon has successfully been able to juggle all the above. Currently a coach at the famed Cheer Athletics gym in Dallas, Brannon completed a Masters degree in computer science at Southern Methodist University while coaching several teams and competing on an open coed team. Now retired, she works her day job as an engineer and spends her nights and weekends coaching at Cheer Athletics. (It’s a good thing that Brannon’s husband also coaches at the gym—otherwise, they might never see each other!)

“You choose what you spend your time on,” says Brannon. “To me, coaching isn’t a job, it’s a passion, so I love being at the gym.”

Brannon credits her time management skills to her background as a competitive cheerleader. She started gymnastics at the age of six and, after moving into cheerleading, has never looked back. Brannon also has the distinction of being the only athlete that has competed at all 10 Worlds championships (when she started, cross-competing was still allowed). Having medaled every year she competed, Brannon cites one of her best memories as winning two gold medals at Worlds when she was 18. “I had to skip prom but it was worth it,” she shares.

These are the kinds of experiences Brannon now shares with her CA athletes. Since she can relate to most of the feelings the kids have, she knows how to advise them—consoling them when they feel defeat and teaching them what true winning can be. “Defeat is always a learning moment and every athlete should experience it to really appreciate success. I tell my students to not focus on winning but to aim for hitting routines you can be proud of. To me, that’s true winning.”

-Vicky Choy

Recruiting: Shades of Grey

Recruiting: Shades of Grey

A new gym’s tryouts listed in the local newspaper calendar. Facebook ads promoting a new team. A Twitter campaign that targets most of the local cheer community. Coaches wearing shirts emblazoned with gym info at competitions, making sure to be seen by the Level Five athletes. Signs in the median of the road, attracting the attention of athletes on their way to their current gyms. There are also promises: free tuition if you’re good enough—not to mention free uniform, free travel and the assurance you’re going to Worlds. Cash bounties for getting your (talented) friend to sign up from your competitor. Cheerlebrity-style opportunities for sponsorship, exposure or branding.

Somewhere in there, there’s a line between “good” recruiting and the kind of tactics that cheapen the sport. But where is that line? And as increasing numbers of current all-star athletes move on to be cheer professionals, where will the standard be set in the future?

It’s a conundrum highly unique to all-star cheer gyms. “For most businesses, recruiting means merely gathering more customers. However, in the cheer gym business, it typically means trying to get kids from a different gym to quit there and join your own gym,” explains Cheer Athletics co-founder Jody Melton. With so many gyms vying for business, prestige and trophies, many cheer professionals view recruiting as a means of building the perfect team or shoring up weak areas in an existing squad.

On the surface, most coaches and gym owners can agree on the broad strokes of what’s acceptable and what’s not. Currently competing cheerleaders are out of bounds, but during the off-season or if the cheerleader actively seeks out information, athletes are fair game. “Our overall policy is that no staff should approach an athlete that they know to be a part of another gym,” says Melton. “If that athlete approaches us, then we will talk about our program, staff and facility, but will not trash talk any other gym.”

To some degree, many gyms rely on athletes and families to do their recruiting for them. In the Yelp age, good word-of-mouth is certainly vital for the success of all of a gym’s programs, not just its highly competitive squads. Understandably, gym owners hope that their happy team members will tell their friends about their cheer experience.

“I think ‘good’ recruiting happens through general advertising and with positive word-of-mouth communication,” says Andrea McBride, director and head coach of the rec and all-star cheer programs at Denham Springs, LA-based Leaps and Bounds Sports Center. “‘Bad’ recruiting happens when there is an overstepping of boundaries. Athletes that are clearly committed to another gym should not be approached until they have completed their commitment for the season.”

As for whether it makes financial sense for a gym to essentially pay gymnasts to compete there, opinions vary. New or aggressively growing gyms often seem to recruit most heavily, especially in offering substantial scholarship packages to athletes with advanced skills and experience. And this strategy wouldn’t keep happening if it didn’t work—programs that can attract the best athletes are often the ones taking home the gold. There is also more at stake for today’s all-star athlete, thanks to bigger trophies, more gymnastics/cheer scholarships, TV coverage and “cheerlebrity” status for the lucky few.

However, recruiting athletes whose sole concerns are the next title or trophy can have a downside. “I don’t know if gyms using recruiting as a quick fix on the way to Worlds really have longevity,” said Morton Bergue, owner and founder of Cheergyms.com. “Once you promise to win and don’t, your kid is going to go to the next gym where they think they can win.”

As the frequency and intensity of recruiting between gyms grows, some cheer professionals are calling for stricter regulations. However, there are few explicit rules about recruiting, and many that do exist don’t require teams to abide by them.

“With the structure we have now, there’s not much we can do about it. And as much as I hate recruiting, as much as I disagree with it, you can’t recruit someone who’s happy,” reflects Bergue. “I hate saying that because it hurts. Even today, I had a girl tell me she was switching gyms because she ‘wanted to win Worlds’—those were her words. It was upsetting and it made me sad, but I can’t promise her that. I can promise we’ll have a good program, I can promise we’ll love your kids and try to get them scholarships and into good colleges, but I can’t promise Worlds. Make your kids happy and they won’t leave—that’s the moral of the story.”

-Janet Jay

Spotlight: Cheer Athletics

Spotlight: Cheer Athletics

The co-founders of Cheer Athletics eye the wide expanse of blue mat and white-and-blue Panthers in front of them as the speakers thunder the lyrics, “We don’t know how to fail—Small, Medium, or Large, we’re tougher than nails and we’re gonna leave the other cats chasing their tails.” The lyrics are no empty boast: Cheer Athletics is arguably one of the most successful all-star programs in the nation. To date, the program boasts 33 Worlds medals (14 more than the next winningest team) and more Worlds championship titles than any other program—not to mention a long list of resident “cheerlebrities” and illustrious alumni (such as Justin Carrier and Matt Parkey).

Things used to be different. When Jody Melton and Angela Rogers formed Cheer Athletics in North Dallas almost 20 years ago, they were just a couple of coaches with just a few kids practicing on the greenish-brown grass of a city park. Then the kids told their friends, and their friends told their friends—and a powerhouse was in the making. Cheer Athletics took home its first national title in the NCA Open Division in 1995, and the program more than tripled in growth the following season. (Co-owner Brad Habermel joined the fold in 1996.) The “hugs and high-fives” reinforcement and family atmosphere—along with high standards and high ambitions—also helped to attract greater numbers of motivated athletes from the Dallas area and beyond to their gym home in Plano.

“We didn’t have a formal mission statement, but we knew we wanted a team that would be the biggest and the best,” says Rogers of their initial approach. “As we grew, we learned it’s not just about being a great athlete—it’s about being great people. We obviously want to win, but that’s not the ultimate goal. It’s about growing and teaching our athletes to be respectful of themselves, their teammates and other people.”

For years, the partners have toyed with the idea of expanding, and this year, things have fallen into place: Cheer Athletics is opening a second gym, this time in the heart of Austin, TX. (A former CA Wildcat happens to own the 11,750 sq. ft. gym.) Though Austin doesn’t have the same concentration of cheer gyms as other big cities in Texas, Cheer Athletics Austin co-director Gerald Ladner said that he was looking forward to changing the perception of cheer in the Austin area.

He’ll have plenty of opportunities: so far, the reception has been staggering.  CA Austin—”CLAWstin” to those in the know (or at least the Twitterverse)—went from nonexistent to the biggest gym in town overnight. “We’d been assuming we would start off small, but turnout has been beyond our wildest expectations,” says Melton. On the first day signup for classes were offered, they filled up in three hours, and in its first year, the gym will have seven teams competing.

Amid large-scale changes and growth in all-star cheer over the past two decades, Cheer Athletics has remained one of the industry’s most notable programs. A big part of that success can be attributed to the behind-the-scenes balance: Habermel runs the all-star program, Rogers handles most of the financial duties and oversees retail, and Melton manages the technology and communication side.

“I think all three of us are fortunate that we really complement each other; like the [cheerleaders], we each have individual skills, but I feel like one of us is really strong at nearly every aspect of business, so we’ve always had our bases covered,” says Melton. “We work together but we’re not the same. We all have different strengths and interests and I think that’s led to a really healthy partnership.”

Between the two locations, CA now has 35 all-star teams (28 in Plano and 7 in Austin), and their growth and triumphs don’t look to be stopping anytime soon. So how do those cats stay on the top of their game?

“One little piece of advice: don’t rush to make it easier, make yourself better,” reflected Rogers. “A lot of times it’s very easy, especially in a competitive sport, to look to other variables as to why something might not be successful, when really we should look to ourselves and what our teams are doing.” And with all eyes on Cheer Athletics, she certainly won’t be the only one laser-focused on what Cheer Athletics’ teams will accomplish this year.

-Janet Jay

Industry Reaction to GrowCheer.org

Industry Reaction to GrowCheer.org

Yesterday’s announcement about GrowCheer.org and the push for an independent USASF sparked a range of reactions throughout the industry. While USASF has declined to comment on the matter, we were able to speak with Varsity’s VP of Public Relations Sheila Noone to learn their company’s stance. “Everything Varsity does is with an eye towards what is best for the young athletes we serve,” says Noone. “No one has more of an interest in growing all disciplines of cheerleading than Varsity, and we feel we have been a strong partner to the USASF and its members.”

Read a sampling of what event producers and gym owners around the industry had to say:

Independent Event Producers (IEP): The Independent Event Producers, IEP, was not consulted, informed or involved in any formation of this proposal. The IEP fully supports a proposal for a fair and transparent governing body. It is our hope that all constituents of the USASF have equal representation. The mission of IEP remains our focus today. Our main objective is to “collectively influence the cheerleading and dance industry, to promote independence and work to ensure our long-term viability in the industry.”

Dave Sewell (Extreme Spirit): Xtreme Spirit has not renewed USASF membership for the 2012-2013 season due to its Varsity control. We feel the current system is in place to maintain control over the Industy’s growth. We will follow the USASF rules, but with exceptions designed to help struggling gyms retain their higher level athletes and also showcase the advanced tumblers out there that are beyond Level 5.

Jody Melton (Cheer Athletics): This is a very interesting proposal that could potentially lead to some needed reforms for our sport. I like the group’s willingness to at least try to work with the USASF/Varsity to iron out some of the issues, rather than starting by creating a competing organization.

The USASF has given us many positive changes for our industry, and it simply would not exist without the leadership of Varsity and its employees, money, guidance and support. They should be applauded for their tremendous work over the last decade. However, it is time to take another look at the USASF structure to ensure that the entire industry is fairly represented. It seems obvious that no single individual, gym, program, company or conglomerate should have significant & permanent influence over our governing body.

There are obvious details that would need to be filled in and some questions to be answered, but on its surface – this looks like a potentially great way to help transition the USASF into an even better & more transparent governing body.

Scott “Crasher” Braasch (Cheer Tyme): I am a staunch supporter and critic of the USASF. I believe our industry has been served well by those in leadership and applaud all their efforts. Our governing body for the sport/industry of All Star Cheer is not just important to our continued growth, safety and structure—it is a must. For this reason, I have always supported the USASF and its mission. I have also been a critic of the USASF and its origins from the cheerleading industry’s largest vendor. As a huge supporter of Varsity brands, I respect and appreciate their financial and intellectual contributions to the origins of the USASF; however, I believe we have come to a point where USASF should truly stand and govern our all star industry independently. This letter shows a divide in our industry that has been developing for years. A governing body that is so closely intertwined with the largest vendor in our industry does not insure that all decisions made on behalf of the governing body are in its best interest, but rather implies that they are in the best interest of the vendor. What other format in our world today has a for-profit entity that governs or is perceived to govern a non-profit entity whose decisions reflect and/or could reflect the profitability of the for-profit entity? This proposal sounds fair and seems to alleviate reasons why so many question the relationship of Varsity Brands to the USASF. I look forward to the outcome of this proposal and sense yet another defining moment in our sport/industry ahead.

Megan and Casey Marlow (Pacific Coast Magic): Awesome concept. Awesome news!!!! Been in this industry for 15 years. So happy to see something truly moving and changing happening!

Chad Mulkey (XPA All-Stars): This is the best news that has been introduced to this industry since its inception. The stronghold has held back a SPORT that has grown tremendously. While Varsity can be thanked for its contributions for the inception, it is clear that this step is crucial as it grows. Excited, excited, excited!

Pam Swope (Storm Elite All-Stars): I totally agree!!! There should be NO company that controls the USASF – no more than the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is! There can’t be a company profiting from the use of a governing body for a sport to grow and thrive. MLB and the NFL are not owned by NIKE – so Varsity should not have control over the governing body of USASF.