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Game Changers

Game Changers: Midwest Cheer Elite

Game Changers: Midwest Cheer Elite

You may know Tanya Roesel as the determined entrepreneur behind the Midwest Cheer Elite empire, but long before her all-star cheer days, she first made a name for herself as a deejay—spinning at Cincinnati nightclubs and eventually opening for major acts like Prince back in the 80s. The road to notability, however, wasn’t exactly smooth: as the only female DJ in town, she was often told she couldn’t succeed because she was a woman. “I love when people tell me I can’t do something because it just makes me want to do it more,” she says.

Roesel took the adversity and spun it into a specialized personal business, finding out what her clients were trying to sell and nailing the kind of demographic they wanted to bring in at large parties. “I loved the challenge of ‘How big can we make this event?’” she says.

Roesel came away from those early gigs with a finely tuned business sense and insider knowledge of the effect music has on human psychology. After spending three years commanding the turntables, she went on to coach high school color guard and rifle teams; in 2000, she was coaxed into coaching her first competitive cheerleading squad—despite never having cheered a day in her life.

Flash forward 14 years, and her gym Midwest Cheer Elite has nearly 500 all-stars, three gyms in Ohio and a brand-new location in Fort Myers, Florida, which went from zero to 300 athletes in four months. Back in Ohio, she is planning to build a bigger gym in Westchester (which has outgrown its original facility) and open three more gyms: a fourth in Ohio, and two more outside the state.

Roesel attributes the rapid growth of Midwest Cheer Elite to an empowered staff that helps each other, attends weekly meetings and is required to know the name of every single child in the gym within 30 days. She strongly believes that personal touch translates to repeat business. “I know my customers, treat them right and, because of that, all I hear is, ‘It’s different, it’s like a family,’” she says.

That said, marketing is also a key part of Roesel’s success strategy. To make Midwest Cheer Elite a household name, she blankets her towns with fliers, posting them everywhere from Kroger’s supermarkets to malls or handing them out the old-fashioned way. One of her tongue-in-cheek mottos: “If it breathes and walks, it gets a flier.”

At the new Florida location, the marketing strategy went beyond paper. The staff built a “haunted” maze out of hay in the gym as part of a fall festival, which created excitement among both the parents and the kids. “When people take a Friday night off and they want to be at the gym, then you know it’s a good thing,” Roesel says.

Roesel’s expertise has become so coveted that she has forged a new career as a consultant, traveling to gyms across the continent to help them course-correct if they’re having difficulty staying in the black. Recently, she met with Panther Cheer Athletics in Canada, where she troubleshot their problems with both their facility and their niche—encouraging them to move into a smaller space that felt more intimate compared to their current tiny slice of a giant stadium and to adopt hip-hop, which no other gym in the area was offering.

Though the advice Roesel doles out to her clients is highly tailored, she has encountered a few common mistakes that many gym owners make. Her top tips on how to avoid them:

Offer plenty of options for parents. Midwest Cheer Elite offers everything from $1 tumbling for an hour on Thursday nights to $175 summer season passes to pricy full-travel packages. If a parent questions how expensive a product is, Roesel offers them a half-season or a single class to bring in customers on all ends of the spectrum. According to Roesel, this approach mitigates unpaid bills and brings in referrals.

Think with your head, not your heart. Don’t let parents avoid paying their bills, Roesel advises. One ways she keeps payments coming in is averaging the services for the entire year and sending monthly bills for the same amount. “You’ve got to keep it simple for the parents, and [your services] have to be budget-able,” she says.

Empower your employees to speak up. Make your office a safe space for staff to feel comfortable talking to you about what’s working and what’s not working in your area. Bottom line: hearing their candid feedback and ideas will increase business and profits.

Embrace competition. If another gym opens up on your turf, look at it as an opportunity rather than a stressor. “I love competition. I love other gyms opening up, because it makes me stop and reevaluate my product,” Roesel says. “What are they doing that we’re not doing?”

Choose music the judges will love. Millennials may dig Miley Cyrus, but nostalgia could work in your favor with 30-something judges, Roesel says. One of her senior co-ed squads recently used “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” by the S.O.S. Band, a tune that topped the charts in 1980. “I always tell my coaches, ‘Get in the heads of your judges,’” she says.

For cheer professionals looking to carve their own niche in the industry, Roesel’s advice is straightforward: “Find out the need and how you can sell that need.” That’s exactly what Roesel herself did, first in her DJ days and now as an all-star cheer expert. “Before I was doing the consulting, I saw that people didn’t know how to run their business,” she shares. “They got into it for the right reasons, but at the end of the day, gyms were shutting down because no one knew how to be a business person.”

Her other guiding motto? When you’ve come up with that big idea, act on it—fast. Otherwise, it’ll become stale and you’ll be seen as a follower, not a leader. “Sometimes you just have to take the risk and execute it as fast as you can, and then figure out what to fix,” she says. And if Roesel’s success is any indication, being a risk-taker pays off in spades.

Tate Chalk: To Nfinity and Back

Tate Chalk: To Nfinity and Back

Pacing back and forth on top of purple tumbling mats in front of a rapt audience of All Star Gym Association members, Tate Chalk encourages the coaches and gym owners in attendance to make their voices heard. Wearing a black button-down shirt and stylized jeans, he talks about how to rise above fear of failure and innovate. Suddenly, he goads the crowd to yell, “Money is good!” Understandably, they need a little encouragement. “You all have to find ways to make it work… Learn things, like ‘break-even point,’ and know what they mean,” he says. “Know that this is a business. This is a business!”

Nfinity Athletic Corporation CEO Tate Chalk brings to mind a scrappy Tony Robbins type rather than a stereotypical suit-wearing CEO. After all, this is a man who, when Nfinity was unceremoniously dumped from Cheersport, posted a digital picture of a “breakup tape”—accompanied by a list of songs such as REM’s “Everybody Hurts” written in girlish bubble letters — on Nfinity’s Facebook page and encouraged fans to submit their own favorite sad-sack tunes. Conventional? No. Memorable? Definitely.

He’s also a guy who decided to follow one of his dreams and move out to Los Angeles to try his luck as an actor in Hollywood back in 1999. Among other gigs, he scored a part as a referee in the 2004 Vince Vaughn–Ben Stiller comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and consulted on cheerleading for the movie. (He says the “brutal” movie industry gave him “a much thicker skin.”)

Speaking up and standing out have become synonymous with 25-year industry veteran Chalk and the Nfinity brand—and that’s the point. The one secret to success, Chalk says, is being original.

“If I had to give three [pieces of advice], I would say be original, be fearless, and be relentless,” he says. “To me, ‘be original’ means know what you are and what you bring, and don’t try to be someone else—and you’ll be successful.”

Chalk has followed his “know what you bring” advice to the letter, taking his stints as a cheerleader at the University of South Carolina and the University of Kentucky and parlaying them into a lucrative career coaching the USC squad, teaching summer camps and owning cheer gyms. Then, in 2003, he developed his own cheerleading shoe just for women: Nfinity, a meticulously designed, spring-floor athletic shoe. The industry hadn’t seen anything like it. And Chalk was in a unique position to sell his vision.

“We’re the only footwear brand whose CEO has actually been on the mat,” he says. “I mean, I was a cheerleader. I coached cheerleading. I have held thousands of stunts and taught thousands of back handsprings and back tucks. And so we hope that the brand comes from a place of authenticity and knowing what it’s like to be there when the lights come on and the music starts.”

Now, almost a decade later, Nfinity Athletic Corporation is not only a consistent leader among the cheerleading shoe market, but has also expanded into basketball and volleyball shoes as well as other sports apparel. In 2009, Nfinity won “Business Innovation of the Year” at the American Business Awards, and the company has regularly ranked in the “Inc. 5000” list.

Though the risks eventually paid off, the early days weren’t without their setbacks. When Chalk was first hawking Nfinity cheerleading shoes, he had only one model pair of shoes and 150 promo T-shirts to try and make his case for the product.

“I was naive, but I think that’s part of being successful—that you’re just naive enough to think you can do it,” he says. “We had lots of defect problems and delivery problems. There was a time there for the first several years that not one shipment had everything go right. You come to accept that it’s never going to be perfect, that something’s going to be off, as far as business goes.”

But Chalk stayed the course, dead-set on making it work. Though his cheer background certainly played a role in his dedication, he attributes his choice of all-star cheerleading as an industry to study and dominate to a deeper reason: the spirit and drive of the people involved.

“I’m really passionate about all-star cheerleading because it gives kids who wouldn’t normally have a chance a [way] to cheer themselves out of whatever situation they’re in,” Chalk says. “Whether they come from the poorest of poor neighborhoods or bad family situations, these kids have had a chance to cheer themselves into a better life. Also, our [industry’s] history is full of small-business owners and entrepreneurs who have taken a chance and taken an idea and created something out of thin air, and that’s noteworthy.”

Putting a megaphone to another marginalized group, Chalk recently founded the Embrace initiative, designed to educate children and parents in the sport about love and acceptance of people of all sexual orientations. The initiative follows a new USASF rule introduced earlier this year decreeing, “Males: minimize exaggerated or theatrical movements,” which has been perceived by some as being anti-gay. (It has since been amended to apply to both genders.)

“The idea being that whether you’re straight or gay or whatever that you can embrace each other in this sport,” Chalk says. “Because of what we do, we’re all sort of outsiders. Cheerleading has a stigma, and we all have to stick together and support each other. And the second part of Embrace is ‘Embrace who you are.’ If you can’t feel safe and secure as a gay or lesbian in cheerleading, then there’s no hope for you in the rest of the world. Our sport should be the one spot that you can go and be yourself and feel at home.”

-Jamie Beckman 

Game Changers: Jessica Smith of Southern Cheer Elite

Game Changers: Jessica Smith of Southern Cheer Elite

When Jessica Smith first started her Danville, KY-based gym, Southern Cheer Elite, she stacked her shelves with all the business books she could get her hands on. But the primers didn’t prep Smith with the intel necessary for success—either the information wasn’t industry-specific enough or didn’t have practical applications for her own business. One thing was clear: Smith was going to have to find her own way to make it as a small gym owner.

She tossed the books and followed her own instincts to create a thriving business in the world of all-star cheerleading. In two years, Southern Cheer Elite has grown from 12 to more than 130 athletes—a stark contrast to its humble beginnings. “I started my business with $30 worth of borrowed equipment,” she remembers. “We slept on the floor of our apartment and I worked 60 hours a week as a waitress.”

Smith was soon able to say sayonara to her day job, progress that she credits to following her gut. According to Smith, most of the experts in the books she read recommended diversification—advice she chose not to heed and has since seen a growth of 20 percent. Instead, Smith turned her focus to exceeding customer expectations and incorporating personal touches in her dealings with families and athletes. “You have to go out there and hustle and be a part of people’s lives,” says Smith. To do so, Smith and her staff do everything from sending birthday cards to giving out long-stemmed roses at competition. Even the invitation to join their team spreads the proverbial love, as it resembles a wedding invitation.

It’s all part of Smith’s philosophy that cheer parents are actually her employers—one she believes that many gym owners forget or neglect. Smith says many owners believe that everyone is replaceable, but at Southern Cheer Elite, that’s not the case. To minimize commuting and maximize convenience, Smith often goes as far as to change class times or let parents bring kids of different ages at the same time. She also seeks parental input when it comes to scheduling meetings: “We don’t just tell them when it will be,” says Smith. “I’m going to be that person that accommodates them.”

Part of the reason Smith values her cheer parents (whom she calls her “advocates”) so much is her belief that they played a big role in the rapid growth of Southern Cheer Elite. Many parents took it upon themselves to refer new business along with their own, with one mom even bringing in 30 new athletes she’d rounded up. “Our business is forever indebted to those people who took a chance on us,” says Smith.

Smith’s employees are also vital to her success. She’s willing to train the right staff members, even if they have no prior experience in the cheer business—an approach she calls “growing your own staff.” She pays them more than she pays herself, a sacrifice she makes willingly. “They’re worth more than I am. I can’t do it without them,” says Smith, who didn’t take a salary the first year, and even now—like many business owners—is the last to get paid. “You have to be willing to be poor for a while,” she concedes.

For Smith, however, it’s a conduit to following her passion—and the eventual success of her business has allowed her to do just that. “If I won the MegaMillions on Friday, the only change you’d see is that I’d probably have a bigger facility. There can’t be a Plan B in starting a program,” says Smith. “You have to be all in.”