Courtney Smith-Pope

The Big Reveal

The Big Reveal

At Kernersville, NC-based Cheer Extreme Allstars, team placements are no longer simply announced online, but have now become a festive affair with much more fanfare. This spring, owner Courtney Smith-Pope introduced the “Teal Reveal,” a gala event held at a local church. Smith-Pope spent the morning with her team moms stuffing personalized invites for each athlete, and when she yelled “Go!” later that night, the athletes eagerly ran to each decorated table to see which team held their fate. In retrospect, Smith-Pope said she loved seeing the athletes react to their placements—hearing happy screams, seeing them hug their moms, being able to comfort a select few who were disappointed—but the event was also helpful on a practical level.

“We get to say thank you to all the parents personally. They come in, and they’re all dressed up, and we show a video with the highlights of tryouts that gets everybody all excited for the season,” shares Smith-Pope.

Of course, not everyone is always excited by the news at the start of a new season—many gym owners must deal with parental pressure to place their child on a higher-level team. To keep team reveals from being stressful and/or tense, it’s important to set the tone for a positive experience by establishing clear expectations, outlining long-term goals and, of course, communicating with athletes and parents.

Five top tips for a successful team reveal:

1. Have standards—and stick to them. While parents may want to see their child succeed right away, the proper placement is one that will be both safe and challenging for the athlete. The best way to avoid unpleasant surprises on placement day is to be specific about what you’re looking for from athletes at each level and make sure everyone on staff shares your vision. Jessica Bugg Smith, owner of Nicholasville, KY-based Kentucky Reign, advises, “Establish policies and procedures for how you want to run your program, and be consistent across the board. If you say that you need a certain skill set for a certain team, you have to stick to your guns.”

2. Follow your own rules. Gym owners and coaches often face pressure to give certain athletes special treatment, but when you do a favor for one person, word gets around. Other parents will expect you to bend the rules for their children, too. Cheer Extreme Allstars is in its 20th year, and Smith-Pope has learned a few things along the way. “The kid you put on the team because you’re close to them…it never works out in the long run. It gives them a more inflated sense of value than they really actually have. They take advantage of the situation, and it’s worse when other parents find out that something like that happened and you moved a kid or did something after the fact. You have to be on the up and up.”

Letting favors affect team placement also does a disservice to the whole team. Bugg Smith offers this example: “You take a child who’s working on a back handspring, right at a Level 2. You put her on a Level 4 team, and what ends up happening is one of two things: either the kid with the Level 2 skills doesn’t continue to develop her own skills, because in practice, you don’t have time for her—or on the flipside, you focus so much on trying to get that kid up to par that your Level 4’s aren’t getting what they need to get to Level 5.”

3. Build relationships. Create an environment where parents know you want what’s best for their child, so they will trust you and respect your decisions. Bugg Smith communicates with parents as often as possible about their child’s progress, and she makes it crystal clear that coaches and parents are working toward the same goal. “All we all want is success for the athlete,” shares Bugg Smith. “Our coaches’ number one priority is to give their kid the best chance of success. That doesn’t necessarily mean winning every championship, but that the child is progressing and growing.”

4. Create a shared vision.  Proper placement benefits the individual athlete, their current team and every team they join in the future. Bugg Smith advises owners of smaller gyms to think long-term: “It’s very important that we’re focusing on the process of developing the athlete versus just where they are this year.”

If an athlete or parent is disappointed in a placement decision, they may threaten to leave and go to another gym, but according to Smith-Pope, that’s a mistake. “The biggest skill you can have in our sport is competition experience. Sometimes they think, ‘I’ll work on those skills and then come back to Cheer Extreme,’ but in reality, if you want to make the team, you want to be on the floor with us, years prior to that.”

5. Consider how you share the news. A successful team reveal relies on finding the right fit for your gym. At Kentucky Reign, team placement is a relatively casual experience. Bugg Smith explains, “We just need you to come in, see what you can do. Generally people know where they’re going. It’s not a big surprise.”

At Cheer Extreme Allstars’ Teal Reveal, the event acted not only as a fun way to kick off a new season, but also a valuable opportunity for parents to ask questions. In the past, Smith-Pope would field texts and phone calls from unhappy parents at all hours of the night, but she enacted a new policy at the Teal Reveal: “Any question they have has to be asked in person.” She found that parents were less confrontational this way because they wanted to avoid making a scene. Coordinating an event like the Teal Reveal is certainly more work than posting a list, but according to Smith-Pope, “We had the best year ever last year, and this really set the tone [for the new season] right from the start.”

-Lisa Beebe

Spotlight: Courtney Smith-Pope

Spotlight: Courtney Smith-Pope

Anyone who encounters Cheer Extreme All-Stars’ Courtney Smith-Pope need not wonder where she gets her effervescent passion for the sport—after all, it’s all in the family. Her mom and co-founder, Betsy, acts as the financial and admin guru for all 9 CEA locations around North Carolina, while her sister, Kelly, oversees its Raleigh and Greenville locations. She first met her husband of 10 years, Ben Pope, back when he owned a Premier Athletics gym in Asheville—today he runs CEA’s Winston-Salem location and coaches tumbling and stunting, while their two daughters cheer at the Kernersville location (which Smith-Pope calls “the mothership” of the operation).

And at the center of it all is Smith-Pope, the feisty nucleus that acts as the face and creative force behind CEA. Named USASF’s “Coach of the Year” in 2009, Smith-Pope has brought CEA to international recognition—with her teams taking home gold medals from Worlds in 2010 and 2012. “People buy our T-shirts from 62 different countries from my mom’s little store—orders come in from Seoul, Singapore, South America and Canada,” shares Smith-Pope.

Part of the program’s notoriety comes from Smith-Pope’s considerable social media presence—she has amassed more than 6,300 Twitter followers and partners with online channels like CheerLIVE to air the annual CEA showcase. (Her Facebook photo is a close-up of her eye with the CEA logo imposed.) “Jeff Webb told me I had a social media addiction—to which I responded that he needed to get with the program,” she laughs. “I’m not personally visible in our 9 locations every day and that’s the way kids who cheer for me can contact me. We’re lucky that the Internet provides that visibility and [opportunity for] commentary; it’s important to have a great image virally.”

Pope and her sister Kelly Smith

Though CEA is now considered one of the industry’s premier programs, it stems from somewhat humble beginnings. Smith-Pope originally aspired to be a gymnast, but fell in love with cheerleading in middle school. When her sister wanted to follow in her cheering footsteps but couldn’t find a team, Smith-Pope and her mom decided to start a recreational league. “Soon 20 of the best rec kids were paying $5 apiece to practice in our backyard,” she remembers. “That was in 1993 and I was 14.”

By the time Smith-Pope was cheering at Wake Forest University, the newly minted all-star program was practicing out of a gymnastics facility—she traveled home to be there every Sunday throughout college. As a biology major, Smith was poised to enter medical school, but true to form, cheer intervened. “We had 80 kids going into the last tryout before I took the MCAT, and 150 kids showed up [to try out],” Smith-Pope remembers. “With each of them paying $10/practice, I decided to make a go of it.”

As CEA has grown over the years, the self-described “cheer fanatic” has kept that homegrown mentality—and partly attributes it to the program’s success. “Being so young, I got to watch a lot of people make a lot of mistakes, like building a facility you can’t support,” she shares. “I saw a lot of people go out of business who were working just to make rent. In the model we have, we’ve never not made a profit—everything we do is related to the number of kids we have.”

This translates into a business model in which many of CEA’s locations are based inside gymnastics facilities (the two entities split the tuition, with CEA providing staff and running the program in exchange for space); Pope-Smith then pays her employees per athlete coached. “They work for retention, not by the hour,” she says. “Everyone gets to feel like their own boss that way and see the effects of their hard work.”

Riding the momentum is another key to CEA’s longevity. On the heels of last year’s Worlds win, Smith-Pope recently opened a new location in Charlotte and has surpassed the 1,000 athlete mark across all locations. She’s also in the public cheer eye thanks to her outspoken co-leadership of the All-Star Gym Association, which she helped start in 2008 but blew up in membership and visibility last year. It’s all part of Smith-Pope’s bigger mission to spread her love for the sport: “I hope to inspire new entrepreneurial event producers and new ideas—people coming into the industry with passion and love,” she says. “We’re all part of a rising tide. It’s time for a return to the optimism that inspired [this industry’s] growth in the 90s.”

With Smith-Pope at the helm, anything is possible.

The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon

The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon

A pro cheerlebrity is hard to miss. She’s usually female, a flyer, slicing through the air during a basket toss—makeup bright, smile broad. Perhaps she’s signing autographs before competition or wowing judges on the floor with a superior tumbling pass. Maybe she has an agent in hopes of getting recruited by a college and scoring a scholarship. She might have even signed an exclusive contract with a magazine or landed a deal to sell a specific brand of shoes. Or perhaps you’ll spot her sitting behind the judges’ table at Varsity’s new wave of “Cheerlebrity” competitions.

Click. Flash. Pose with beaming young fans. Sign a program. Smile. Wave. Repeat.

This level of pomp and circumstance isn’t unlike the kind associated with A-list stars with Oscars under their belt, but these cheerlebrities are teenagers who have harnessed social media and caught the public eye, turning their specific set of skills into a brand and launching themselves to superstardom within cheerleading circles.

As “ambassadors” of the sport, some cheerlebrities are tapped to train with and meet-and-greet other cheerleaders in hopes that some of their star quality will rub off on them. Having cheerlebrities teach tumbling/stunting/stretching clinics for young all-star cheerleaders is especially popular. Naturally, the stars sign autographs and mug for pictures afterward. It’s all part of the new normal—the growing culture of cheerlebrity.

Pros and Cons

Is this emphasis on the individual rather than the team as a whole a good thing for the sport? It depends on whom you talk to.

“I look at [the growth of cheerlebrities] as a tremendous compliment to our sport,” says Courtney Smith-Pope of Cheer Extreme Allstars, who coached cheerlebrity Maddie Gardner. “Basketball has Michael Jordan. Swimming has Michael Phelps. Gymnastics has Gabby Douglas. This is the natural evolution of our sport—there are going to be superstars.”

However, cheerleading is inherently a team sport—after all, elaborate stunts and formations don’t really work if only one person is performing them—so having the spotlight rest on a select few individuals can make for potentially awkward situations.

World Cup All-Stars CEO Elaine Pascale, who coaches cheerlebrity Kelsey Rule, says she’s concerned not only that there is no formal “selection” process for creating a cheerlebrity (potentially excluding more deserving cheerleaders), but also that the pressure to perform could negatively affect a cheerlebrity’s mental game.

“I just worry that if this is the trend, then we’re looking at these athletes more on a professional level than an amateur level, where we’re putting a lot of pressure on them,” says Pascale. “We’re making them have to live up to a title that at 15, 16 or 17 years old, I’m not sure that they’re developed enough to not have it filter over to the competition floor.”

Pascale is quick to clarify, however, that she’s not against recognizing outstanding individuals—she just wishes awards were doled out fairly.

“In any sport we have trophy winners, but I think there’s a forum to congratulate these specific athletes,” she says. “At World Cup, we gather up parents and award a trophy to the best athlete of that particular performance. Those kids go home with that trophy and feel good about themselves, so they’re still connected to that sense of team.”

But is heaping praise and adulation on a supremely talented individual simply the way things go, whether you’re giving a presentation in a boardroom or tumbling on a gym floor? Danica and Jay Noah of 2×2 Productions, which creates personalized DVDs for cheerleaders, picked noted cheerlebrities Maddie Gardner and Maison Baker to introduce their videos, citing the pair’s inner and outer “grace.” But the Noahs do acknowledge a negative response to the cheerlebrity trend.

“There already seems to be a backlash towards this,” they said in an email. “We do think there will always be hose individuals that stand out in a crowd. It’s just human nature. You could pick any classroom, and you will have certain kids that are leaders, planners, fun ones, pretty or handsome athletes, etc. I think that is how it works here—there will always be those that others will want to emulate, whether for an amazing skill or just the way they look and talk.”

——->Part 2: The Team Effort