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Jody Melton

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