Eyes Off the Prize: All-Star Prep and Half-Year Teams

Are all-star prep and lower-level teams the future of all-star cheerleading?

Over this past weekend, hundreds of athletes converged on Walt Disney World for an epic cheer competition. Worlds? Not exactly. This year marks the debut of the Summit, a Varsity All-Star event catering to teams in non-Worlds divisions. Following a similar template to Worlds, the Summit awarded 107 paid bids and 355 at-large bids to more than 450 teams of all levels. “[The aim] is to allow some of the very best non-Worlds teams to compete head-to-head at one time and in one location,” says Varsity’s John Newby.

It’s all part of what appears to be a movement away from the ultra-competitive focus on Levels 5 and 6—and toward a return to the more recreational aspect of cheer. “So much emphasis has been put on the highest-level teams in the country trying to qualify and be part of Worlds that the majority of programs haven’t had the same opportunity,” adds Newby. “We think this [event] will balance some of the attention to only the highest-level teams and create some exciting new opportunities.”

Another recent development in this vein is the introduction of All-Star Prep, geared toward half-year and less competitive teams. USASF treated the 2012-2013 season as a pilot period for this new division, which is characterized by a shorter two-minute routines, a simplified tumbling category and a “no crossovers” rule. Currently non-sanctioned, the All-Star Prep division does not count toward a Worlds bid and is offered by event producers like Epic, CheerSport and Jam Brands.

“The prep division has really helped us because we can take inexperienced kids and give them a taste of competition without going the full gamut with a Level 1 or 2 team,” says Karlette Fettig, co-owner of Indiana Elite in Noblesville, Indiana. “[Gym owners] should be focusing on bringing kids in at a lower level because they’ll be the Level 4 and 5 cheerleaders one day.”

What’s driving this relatively new trend? In CheerProfessionals recent “State of the Union” panel, experts including Fettig attributed the shift to the economy. With many families struggling, all-star gyms must find ways to make their programs affordable in order to retain clients and continue to attract new athletes.

“This remains a very difficult economic time,” says Fettig’s co-owner Bethe Beaver. “Families have been forced to make some tough decisions, and we are very fortunate that so many of our families have been able to remain at the gym.”

Fettig and Beaver credit that level of retention to their introduction of half-year teams, a method that a growing number of gyms are using to get cheerleaders through their doors. These teams start later in the season (usually in December) and keep costs down by attending local competitions, choosing less expensive uniforms and not requiring matching practice wear. They also have lower tuition, but still receive benefits such as tumbling classes and clinics.

East Celebrity Elite is another gym finding a new niche through half-year teams. Owner Cheryl Pasinato believes half-year teams serve two main purposes: 1) giving children an introduction to all-star cheer and a taste of competition, and 2) ensuring there are athletes in the gym—even if they can’t make a full-year commitment. Pasinato knows all too well what it’s like to feel the financial pinch, as the state of the economy played a role in necessitating her gym’s merger four years ago. (And East Celebrity Elite is far from the only one—Beaver says that many gyms in her area have merged, taking the number of gyms within a 20-mile radius from 10 to just three.)

Both Pasinato and Beaver also cite another benefit to the half-year programs: the opportunity to develop relationships with local recreational cheer programs. “Throughout the year, we work with several local organizations and their recreational cheer programs,” says Beaver. “Typically, the feedback from the organizers and parents involved was always very positive, but we had been struggling to find a way to get them more involved with what we do. The half-year program seemed to be the perfect starter program for many of these families.”

Pasinato takes it a step further, often recruiting coaches to come coach East Celebrity Elite’s half-year teams. “We have a good relationship with the youth coordinators and a lot of them do encourage their kids [to participate in half-year teams],” says Pasinato. “A lot of them are very good coaches, and they’ve done a really good job.”

Of course, not all gyms are heading in this direction. Top Gun All-Stars, known to many as a “Worlds gym,” has taken some measures to make its younger teams more affordable—but co-owner Kristen Rosario says that change is due more to parents’ reluctance to commit to such an expensive sport before getting a full indication of their child’s interest.

“Other than that, we really have not made changes to our all-star program as far as pricing,” Rosario explains. “We did, however, decrease the number of out-of-town competitions [to which] we travel.” She adds that this still gives Top Gun teams plenty of opportunities to compete, as there is an “overabundance” of competitions from which to choose while still staying closer to home.

Regardless of their current direction, gyms are still providing many opportunities for young people to get into all-star cheer—from the more recreational focus to the strongly competitive bent. And they remain optimistic about the futures of their programs.

For Top Gun, keeping families invested is about providing a quality experience backed up by a strong legacy. “I do believe that the name that many gyms have built for themselves can, in fact, be some help,” Rosario says. “Obviously, if you’re going to pay for something that is as expensive as cheerleading, you’d rather pay for it in a place where you know that you’re going to get good training and see good results.”

For Indiana Elite, it’s about staying flexible and conforming to clients’ needs. “Bottom line—we are open to adding new classes and programs that we believe will benefit the families in our program and/or in our area,” says Beaver. “It is our goal to provide a program and an atmosphere that is positive for our team members and their families, and it is our hope that if we can continue to provide an environment that the kids and their parents like, then we will prosper.”