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Day in the Life: Dan Kessler

Day in the Life: Dan Kessler

5:00 or 6:00 am: I get up early in the morning to work out before the girls wake up. (I have two little girls: 3-year-old Ruby Jane and 1-year-old Eleanor.) 90 percent of my workout is straight running—right now, I use the treadmill because it’s been so darn cold [in Kentucky], but I’ve done a couple marathons and a bunch of half-marathons and smaller races. Then I shower, drop Ruby Jane off at pre-school around 8:30ish and come to the office. 

9:30 am: I don’t sit down and check email right away, because that totally distracts you from everything. Instead, [I make] a to-do list. I leave it on my desk, and then try and visualize my day and where I’m going to put my time.

10:00 am: Time for some emails! I really try to sit down and tell myself, “Be productive and don’t sit here for eight hours and get five hours of work done.” When I leave, I’m done for the day. With two young kids, I’ve made an emphasis to get stuff done before I get home; I try not to let it seep in [to home life].

11:00 am: We couldn’t become JAM Brands without the people we have. I normally check in with Tara Harris, VP of Sales and Development, to see what’s going on. Early in the week, I definitely check in with our brand leaders to see how the weekend went, hot buttons, whatnot—and, obviously, to discuss the next week’s events. It’s the same thing every week, in terms of events ending and events starting. (This dialogue continues throughout the day.)

Noon: For lunch, I try to do 50/50, bringing lunch and going out to eat, but it doesn’t usually work out like that.  There’s a rotation of places around the office I go to: Qdoba, Jason’s Deli, Backyard Burger, Chick-fil-A, Subway….

2:00 pm: Check in with the judging department to see how they’re doing. It’s important to make sure that I’m staying up to speed on what’s going on.

4:30 pm: Head home to be back with the girls. The girls take an afternoon nap, so I spend the rest of their waking hours with them until they go to bed. We do anything from arts and crafts to going downstairs to the playroom. Just being a present dad is the most important thing, and I’m lucky that I can do that. That’s my wife Shannon’s time to step away from the girls for a bit.

6:00 pm: Lucky for me, Shannon likes to cook! She makes very good, healthy dishes for us; we love her chili and fish dinners.

7:45 pm: The girls go to bed around 7:30, so Shannon and I try to go downstairs and have adult talk about how our days were. (Even during dinner, it’s a lot of Ruby Jane saying, “Mom! Mom!”)

8:00 pm: Like most people, we have shows that we like to watch on DVR; it’s just trying to enjoy quality time being together. We’re addicted to season one of “Breaking Bad” right now; we also got hooked on “Nashville” and “Boardwalk Empire.” Shannon and I are really big sports fans, so on Saturdays, we’ll be watching games like football and basketball depending on the season.

9:30 pm: Jokingly, but seriously, I’ve been known to fall asleep on the couch. It’s kind of like, go ‘til you’re done, and then you shut it off. There are nights when I could stay up all night and watch meaningless TV, but I have to get up at 5 or 6 am!

 

 

Spotlight: Dan Kessler

Spotlight: Dan Kessler

When JAM Brands co-founder Dan Kessler tried cheerleading for the first time at the University of Louisville after two years of playing collegiate soccer, his friends told him he was a natural at stunting. But he still had to learn the techniques from the ground up: a toss hands, then a toss hands extension, then a liberty, then a top hand. “[Stunting] was a new athletic skill that I had to conquer and try to perfect,” he says. “That addiction of getting better kept me going to practice and working.” 

One could say the same thing about the way Kessler approaches his business: taking one huge blowout cheerleading event, JAMFest, executing it, fine-tuning it and ultimately growing it into a 130-event-a-year production company, The JAM Brands, whose competitions young cheerleaders and dancers all over the continent clamor to attend.

In 2000, Kessler joined JAM Brands co-owners Aaron Flaker and Emmett Tyler, two of his old college buddies who’d started JAMFest in 1995, and made the team a “triumvirate,” as they call it. “People say [not to] mix business with pleasure or friends with business, but the personal relationship and appreciation and care that we have for each other [is what makes us different]. We like to see each other succeed in life, and that’s helpful,” Kessler says.

As far as splitting up the work goes, Kessler credits Flaker for JAM Brands’ marketing success—right down to the fonts on the signage—and Tyler for a “top-down” perspective, including calculating dollars and cents). Kessler says his own contribution to the triad has been a strong focus on product development, as well as  vision for the energetic, fun vibe and look that JAM Brands events are known for. He’s also a pro at “relationship-building,” a strength that’s paid off in spades—for instance, the ideas for both the Majors and the U.S. Finals grew from listening to what cheerleaders, parents, coaches and industry professionals had to say.

“Customer service and listening to people is very important. I try to listen to what is wanted and needed and then bring that into our products,” Kessler says.

To pull off events of JAM Brands’ caliber and visibility is a feat that Kessler says is attributable to several business must-dos:

Keeping the lines of communication open: Kessler heavily relies on personal communication with coaches and gym owners to disseminate information, and he leans on his office staff to facilitate that end. “Our staff is there to answer and make calls, answer emails as quickly as possible and get out the information as quick as possible,” he says. “You’ve got to have people communicate [your] message.”

Using social media to your advantage: Banners advertising event hashtags and Twitter accounts have become invaluable tools, as has using social media to “pre-promote” logistics information. “We try to tell the coaches and owners to tell the families to like us, follow us and hashtag us, so they can always be up-to-date,” he says. “That’s one of the things unique to us, even now, is the ability to get [information] right away.”

Viewing others’ successes as good for the industry as a whole: Even when competitions similar to JAM Brands pop up, Kessler welcomes new entries into the event business. “We feel pride that we can put out great products and services that other people want to replicate or duplicate or imitate, because that means it’s good,” Kessler says. He’s also keenly aware of how more events can aid the bigger picture of growing the sport in general: “Ultimately, our goal is to get as many kids to walk through the doors of a gym as possible—because that’s the most important thing in our industry: growing the number of participants.”

Making it about the kids: Kid-friendly bells and whistles like inflatable “fun zones,” Jammy the mascot, interactive video technology, social media participation and humorous gags like coaches or grandmas dancing together are all hallmarks of JAM Brands events. These elements are designed to encourage children to have a blast—and their decision-makers to attend the next JAM Brands event.

In event-speak, these are “external fun factors,” according to Kessler. “We invented or created many of the things you see on the all-star market today, and it started with focusing on the kids—that’s why we went with the name JAMFest,” Kessler says. “When you think of JAMFest, it has nothing to do with cheerleading. Back in the day it was NCA, UCA, MCA…very ‘alphabet’ companies. This idea was, ‘We want to have competitions, but we want to remember that these events are fun.’”

Fun is also a personal value of Kessler’s, right down to regular evening playtime with his two daughters and his legendary annual Kentucky Derby party, famous in Louisville for providing what Kessler calls a “slow start” to the long weekend, by way of conversation and bourbon cocktails. This year, his wife Shannon’s new company, Primp Style Lounge (a hair wash-and-style service similar to the popular Drybar chain), is slated to make an appearance at the festivities. 

Kessler is proud that his other half shares his entrepreneurial spirit. “We’re America,” says Kessler. “You watch cheerleading competitions and you say, ‘I can do it better.’ [Same with Primp Style Lounge]—it’s along the lines of what we see in New York and Chicago and LA. [Shannon thought], ‘These ‘dry bars’ and blowout places are great, so we’ll bring it to Louisville.”

Now that’s what we call Kentucky fried business smarts.

State of the Union, Part 2

State of the Union, Part 2

CheerProfessional tapped four of the industry’s cheer leaders for a spirited panel discussion on our industry and its future. Following part one, read part two of our interview:

Safety is obviously a hot-button topic in the industry. What do you think will be the impact of the American Academy of Pediatrics report and all of the media attention on safety?

Dan Kessler of The Jam Brands

Kessler: Safety and kids’ health is more important than it’s ever been. Five years ago, we never talked about concussions in football—the awareness is much higher. And, as the sport of cheerleading grows, the more kids doing it, the more possibility for injury. Unfortunately, the Pediatrics report include all types of “cheer”—from rec and school to all-star cheer—so until we can define a clear separation between these types of cheer, there will always be that comparison. Going forward, our gym owners have to be [focused on] safety first, using proper progression and keeping kids to the proper level. Event producers rely on the coaches and owners to only put skills on the floor that the athletes can safely execute. The more we make our coaches smarter and more aware of safety issues, the better our industry will be.

Puckett: For the sport’s longevity, I think we have to keep a balance of good safety and good coaching. Some of the current [rule] changes were very necessary to keep the sport safe. In all honesty, if we push the limit too far and increase catastrophic injuries, it will destroy the sport. I’d like to see credentialing taken a step further and made mandatory to more levels.

John Newby, Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Varsity All-Star

Newby: [There are] a lot of gyms doing it the right way—take those examples and have certified tumbling instructors. Education and training progressions and proper technique are paramount to the long-term success of our industry. That’s one of the areas of focus in the near future that we need to ramp up and continue to make the sport safer. The more we talk about ways to increase safety measures, the better off the sport will be in all aspects and disciplines.

There’s a lot of talk about cheerleading becoming a sport and even entering the Olympics. What are your predictions on that front?

Kessler: All-star gym owners need to be educated on the pros or advantages to being an Olympic sport and how it will help their business or create more cheerleaders. Will it change what they do in their four walls? A lot of these questions are not being asked of our all-star market, but are being told to our all-star market. The all-star market should demand more input into the growth of cheerleading, both nationally and internationally. Until we have these answers, there is no way to predict if this would be a good or bad thing for our industry.

Karlette Fettig, Indiana Elite All-Stars

Fettig: I think it’s a long way off. More countries are getting involved, but I don’t know that they’re at the level of competitiveness that the United States is. To me, there is a lot of work to be done before it’s an interesting enough sport to be attractive to the Olympics. They need to know that the U.S. won’t go out there and dominate every time.

Newby: I think it is an exciting thought, but probably years away from being seriously considered. International development of the sport is crucial and will make a difference of how quickly, if ever, this sport will be considered for Olympic competition. Time will tell.

How can our industry thrive in the future?

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

Puckett: Coaches are concerned that our routines are so jam-packed that [the sport is] becoming totally skill-based—taking the fun and flash out of routines. I think we might take a turn back toward adding the flair, either by adding time to the routine or cutting back the skills. That will be a tough transition, but it’s possible. Also, I think the types of events will keep evolving with new, fresh ideas like Jam LIVE! and Varsity’s Gameday Championship. It’s important to keep it exciting for kids and parents and keep people wanting more.

Fettig: Gyms are going to need to figure out how to make their programs attractive to more children so they can stay alive. I believe in 10 years, the industry will look different on the gym side. Larger gyms have grown over the last several years because of other small gyms closing. It’s become difficult for gyms to start up and be competitive against very large gyms of 500-600 kids. There will be a big dichotomy between a 700-kid program and 150-kid program. In 10 years, you’ll see a big spread between large and small gyms and not a lot of in-between if people don’t start trying to figure out how to get more kids in their door each and every year. That means focusing on younger, less skilled kids and getting them interested in the sport. I get that Level 4 and 5 is exciting to coach and watch, but you have to get more kids in at Level 1 and Prep in order to keep the sport going.

Kessler: All Star Prep. These divisions are about embracing the simplicity and the fun that got our sport growing to begin with. It’s not the you-have-to-get-your-back-tuck-NOW mentality—it’s more about making it fun, making it exciting and making the kids love what they do.  It offers the same athletic appeal but with less commitment and the same performance aspect.  That’s kind of what all-stars was at the beginning in the purest sense.

Our industry and the future of all-star cheerleading and dance can thrive if it is a positively regulated sport that is safe, exciting, accessible and competitive for the kids that participate. The kids have to have FUN! The environment must be safe, and the whole purpose of creating an all-star team of any type is to be competitive. In addition, the sport has to be both affordable and wholesome so as to assist parents in raising strong, healthy kids. We have to offer the same (or better) benefits than any other sport out there so that kids and their parents make all-star cheer and dance their sport choice.

State of the Union, Part 1

State of the Union, Part 1

CheerProfessional tapped four of the industry’s cheer leaders for a spirited panel discussion on our industry and its future.

Pam Puckett, The Cheer Center

In your opinion, what have been the most significant changes or advances we’ve made in all-star cheerleading to date?

Puckett: The best thing that’s happened over [my] 16 years [in the business] is the USASF forming and having the NACCC to work with them—having guidelines to make us a legitimate sport and help all the companies keep things on the same page. It’s given us the structure we needed.

Newby: Worlds has had a huge impact, especially from a recognition standpoint. In some gyms, it’s become such a focus that it’s had some unintended consequences—kids and parents so focused on trying to find a Worlds team to be on, even if it means switching gyms. It’s like the NCAA tournament: you end up with 20 top teams that everyone knows, which you could equate to mega-gyms. For some, their primary goal is to make it to the big dance, and that exists for Worlds in some ways. It might be time to balance some of the attention given to high-level programs that are mega-talented. To address that, we’ve developed The Summit, a more prestigious year-end event geared toward teams that are in non-Worlds divisions. So far, the response to this event has been incredible.

What have been some of the setbacks from your perspective?

John Newby, Executive Vice-President and General Manager of Varsity All-Star

Newby: Having too many divisions/levels/competitions leads to an overall lack of competition. Competition gets watered down and becomes more like an exhibition; teams get spread too thin. You end up with competitions across the country where you have a single team in one division not competing against anyone else. In the end, if we want all-star to be considered a sport, you have to measure your skills against teams of equal [level]. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed.

Kessler: As the sport got more competitive, many gym owners, parents and athletes said, “I want to be number one.” [In light of that trend], the Level 2 Youth athlete who enjoyed working on back handsprings was now pushed to be more results-driven. It became more about having to be successful for fear of losing kids to the gym across the street and less about providing a fun, athletic and educational outlet for the athletes. Kids started getting out of the sport and I feel a main reason was it wasn’t as fun for them as it once was. Cheer is the one sport that does not “cut” athletes.  We have a place for every child and we should embrace that more.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the economy and how that has affected—and will continue to affect—gyms?

Karlette Fettig, Indiana Elite All-Stars

Fettig: I think the economy is going to get much worse. Gyms really have to seriously look at how to keep their programs affordable. What we’ve been doing at Indiana Elite is trying to make programs in our gym affordable to more families. One of those solutions has been starting half-year programs. Also, along with national traveling teams and regional teams that go to surrounding states, we have teams that only compete locally and exhibition teams that don’t compete to keep fees down. It’s important to eliminate barriers to entry—if you’re a program that’s just doing large competitions and traveling, it’s very hard for families to afford that. Get them excited about cheer at a relatively inexpensive level, and once they understand what it entails, they’re ready to take the next step.

Puckett: Gym owners had to be more creative with their resources and not just count on children walking through the door; it became important to offer different things such as birthday parties and other activities. About three years ago, I saw some definite slowdown, but interest overall is increasing back upward. It’s partially the rebound of the economy, but also us being more creative. Our half-season teams have tapped into a whole different market, appealing to the beginning athlete and people coming from rec teams.

What trends do you see coming down the pike as far as events? 

Fettig: Whenever competitions ask for feedback, I press hard to give us what’s really necessary. Stop giving free giveaways, take out the extras and focus on what’s important—spring floors, raised stage (in some cases) and equipment in the practice room. All of the extra goodies are not nearly as important as quality judging and ample teams to compete against. We can forego the “lights, camera, action” if we get those two pieces.

Newby: At the same time gym owners and parents are feeling the pinch, event producers are under significant stress. Event producers are seeing increased expenses from the venues, as well as shipping and transportation costs. It’s a huge challenge to try to manage through these tough economic times and keep from taxing these parents and gyms. We’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple years digging into cost-saving opportunities. How important are giveaways and trophies and banners? It’s been a highly sensitized issue for us. We’ll do everything we can to manage our costs and keep from passing that on through the customer.

Any thoughts on judging and scoring?

Fettig: Our coaches have felt that in trying to work toward the grid and be more objective in scoring, they’ve taken out the ability to be creative in the routines. I believe event producers have to continue to develop their scoresheets so that there is a good balance between objectivity and creativity.

Newby: As partners with the gyms, the best thing for the industry in the long-term is a modified universal scoring system. It makes sense to me to move in that direction eventually, as long as there are some variables; some event producers can decide on whether the percentages are applied to pyramids and stunts. I think it will take time. It’s not an easy flip of the switch, but I know there are some really intelligent people who are talking about options to be considered.

Dan Kessler, The Jam Brands

Kessler: As the sport became more competitive and results-driven, coaches began asking for a more rigid scoring system. They wanted to know, “If I do this, will I score here?” They asked for less subjectivity and a scoring system that was more black-and-white—so this was reflected in scoring systems across the industry. In the past two years, there has been a new movement. Coaches are now asking for scoring systems to allow for more creativity. They feel the routines have become too “cookie-cutter” and they’ve lost their showmanship. Our industry is market-driven, so we have always listened to our customers. I think some coaches and owners believe that, as event producers, we just create our scoring systems without any input from our customer base. In fact, we do talk and poll tons of customers before we make any changes, as we understand that they are the ones that will really be affected.

We seem to be in an era of more USASF rules and regulations that are causing some divisiveness. What’s your take on that?

Newby: With any governing body, there are going to be conflicting and varying opinions on just about every issue. The organization is young, dynamic and still developing.  When all-star started, there were no rules or regulations, very little organization and few, if any, guidelines—it was the Wild West. Obviously, change is difficult, but necessary. You’re not going to please everyone, but the people working on this are in it for the right reasons and are looking out for the kids. A more unified set of rules has helped to make the sport legitimate and created a strong foundation to take all-star cheerleading to the next level.

Kessler: When you have more rules and regulations, that lessens your ability to be creative and entrepreneurial. We have to allow our sport to foster growth and be creative. If it becomes so strict that a gym owner says, “Man, I can’t be creative because I can only do XYZ,” how good is that? We always get compared to gymnastics—let’s stop being compared. Let’s be a fun sport that isn’t so structured and rigorous.

Fettig: I understand the concept behind the governing body wanting the image to be better for the sake of industry growth. But if you’re going to put rules in place, you better be able to police them. Otherwise it will just lead to a lot of bickering. If they’re not policing it, I’m not sure why it’s being put in place. What are the ramifications of not following [them]?

Read Part Two of State of the Union!

America’s Best Athlete Does Her Best to Help Newtown Families

America’s Best Athlete Does Her Best to Help Newtown Families

As the industry—and our nation—tries to get back in the holiday spirit after last week’s tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., a cheerleader named Janie Pascoe is doing her best to restore hope. After being named Athlete of the Year at America’s Best National Championships in Kansas City last weekend, Janie requested to donate her $500 scholarship prize to the Newtown Memorial Fund for the victims’ families rather than using it toward her Indiana University education.

“It is an honor to receive this award, but I feel the money would be better used in the hands of the New Town Memorial Fund rather than mine and maybe this will encourage others to help as well,” said Janie in a statement.

Though it’s an unconventional approach, America’s Best Championships and The JAM Brands were more than happy to oblige Janie’s selfless wishes. “I couldn’t help but tear up at how amazing this young athlete truly is,” says Chad Lemon of The JAM Brands. “It is so refreshing to know that there are great, positive role models out there and Janie fits that bill to a tee. I think Janie’s small act of kindness shows that she truly is ‘America’s Best’ Athlete of the Year.”

Cheers to Janie for showing what the true holiday spirit is all about.

 

Expert Q&A: Varsity vs. Jam Brands Scoring

Expert Q&A: Varsity vs. Jam Brands Scoring

Question: Since different companies have different scoring grids, is there a way to compare them (i.e. a Level 2 Mini first-place score at a Jamfest competition of 79.950 and a Level 2 Mini first-place score at a Varsity competition of 54.36)? 

Jeremi Sanders of JAM Brands

Answer from Jam Brands Scoring Director Jeremi Sanders: Since different companies use different standards and rubrics to score teams, it can get complicated when trying to compare one event company to the next. Since scoring systems are mainly based on what is allowed per level, routines tend to be similar. The difference factors in when certain skill sets are weighted more or less from company to company.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for our Winter 2013 issue, in which we’ll have a feature story on various scoring systems and how they stack up — including interviews with Jeremi, Varsity’s Justin Carrier and more!