Cheer Social

Kiara Nowlin

Spotlight: California All-Stars

Spotlight: California All-Stars

“Eat, cheer, sleep”—it may sound like a gym wall mantra, but it’s actually one of the taglines for California All-Stars’ online web series “Cheerleaders.” Featuring coach Eddie Rios and cheerlebrities like Gabi Butler, Jenee Cruise and Kiara Nowlin, the AwesomenessTV show has followed the program’s famed “Smoed” Level 5 team and its highs and lows throughout the season. To date, the series has gotten more than one million overall views on YouTube—impressive exposure for what has already become one of the industry’s most recognizable brands.

“Cali Smoed has gained attention since the show—the most sought-after items in our pro shop are currently the Smoed T-shirt and bra,” says co-owner Tannaz Emamjomeh. “However, while our staff and kids appreciate the notoriety, nothing takes precedence over the program as a whole.”

According to Emamjomeh, finding balance in that regard has been one of the primary challenges of shooting the show. Certain athletes are featured more prominently than others—but, off-screen, it’s important that all 885 athletes between the program’s five locations feel just as valued. “We were working through some minor conflicts on our Smoed team because some of the veteran members were questioning if the show was a distraction,” admits Emamjomeh. “Our priority is team success, so we addressed it right away by reminding the staff, kids and parents how much we value team over anything.”

Of course, there have been plenty of upsides as well. The gym receives a stipend that will go toward offsetting Worlds costs, and Emamjomeh says the Smoed athletes have gotten thousands of new Instagram and Twitter followers. For her and co-owner Jeff McQueen, the show has also provided an international means of showcasing the gym. They’d been approached for reality shows in the past, but this was the first time the pitch aligned with their vision.

“The producer is a former cheerleader herself, so she understands competitive cheer,” says Emamjomeh. “Her goal was in sync with ours: showing the competitive aspect, athleticism and hardcore training behind the scenes. We felt comfortable that the show wouldn’t impact us negatively, but rather give viewers a glimpse of high-level training.”

Filming started last September and is now concluding after Worlds, where cameras weren’t allowed to capture the competition but caught the action off the mat. There’s talk of making the show into a televised reality show, but Emamjomeh has plenty to focus on until that happens. She and McQueen are currently opening another location in Ontario, CA (joining the five others in California and Nevada), and the program just came off an impressive showing at Worlds with not only Smoed, but also its Sparkle and Black Ops teams taking home gold.

It’s all part of a West Coast cheer empire that only seems to be gaining traction—something Emamjomeh and McQueen never anticipated when they started out in 2001. “We didn’t have any hopes other than winning NCA nationals. We had no inkling that we would ever expand, nor was it a goal of mine,” says Emamjomeh. “Opportunities fell into our laps, and therefore, the business model had to change to maximize success for a multi-location gym.”

She attributes much of the success to the program’s strong sense of identity and level of exposure. “The Cali brand has evolved and grown over the years; I think it’s necessary for any gym to define and shape the culture of the program,” says Emamjomeh. “Our Worlds teams have elevated our exposure and we’re grateful for that. It’s been a fun and exciting ride.”

Class Act: Get an “A+” in Throwing Specialty Classes and Clinics

Class Act: Get an “A+” in Throwing Specialty Classes and Clinics

At Cheer Factor in Foxboro, Mass., specialty clinics are for athletes at the “top” of their game—literally. Inspired by a similar program at USA Gymnastics, Cheer Factor’s new “T.O.P. (Talent Opportunity Program)” has been a huge hit with athletes from its three locations, as well as area schools. Geared at Level 5 athletes (or those approaching Level 5 status), the T.O.P. clinic has become a coveted invite-only event.

“Not only did it serve as a motivational tool and a great way to get all of our kids from different locations together, but it was also a way to start building our Level 5 program for next year,” shares Heather Kalnicki, head tumbling instructor. 32 of the 40 invited athletes attended, and the exclusive nature of the clinic inherently created demand for future offerings. “A lot of Level 3 and 4 athletes who are borderline know they’ll get invited when they’re ready,” adds Kalnicki.

Whether it’s an elite invite-only clinic, cheerlebrity master class or other type of specialty clinic, classes and clinics can be a win-win for both athletes and cheer professionals. For athletes, it’s a chance to break out of routine and focus on a specific area of improvement, while for gyms, it can be a viable source of revenue and means of attracting new athletes.

How It Works

Simply put, master classes and specialty clinics meet a specific need for athletes—such as honing in on a special area of interest or learning from a top professional from outside the gym. Depending on the nature of the class, classes can be ongoing or one-time only. For instance, at Columbia, SC-based Carolina Crossfire Cheer, ongoing classes range from back handspring clinics to stunting classes to “Fit and Flex” (focused on stretching and flexibility). “If you pick a skill that your athletes need work on and create a clinic or class, parents and cheerleaders are more likely to have a reason to participate,” says owner Angela Koenig.

In some instances, one-off clinics can spring from unexpected opportunities. That’s exactly how Lisa Murphy of Union Grove, WI-based Envy All-Stars ended up booking cheerlebrity Kiara Nowlin for a tumbling clinic. Murphy had inquired about hiring Nowlin as a choreographer and learned that Nowlin doesn’t do choreography, but instead travels to various gyms providing master classes. “My partners loved the idea and thought it would be great for us, being a new gym,” shares Murphy.

Planning + Profit

According to Koenig, one-time classes and clinics can be especially profitable when properly planned. While ongoing classes are typically limited to a low student-to-instructor ratio, clinics can often accommodate more athletes; families may also be more willing to make a one-time investment than pay for a recurring class. “If you set a minimum number of students to be registered in order to host the clinic and if you charge the right amount, you can make more than [in] a standard class,” says Koenig, who says a typical three-hour clinic at her gym could cost $30 per participant.

In other cases, the end goal may not be profit-related, allowing for more flexibility with pricing. For the T.O.P. Clinic, Cheer Factor charged just $10/participant as the clinic was geared to be a feeder for the gym’s Level 5 program. “We didn’t want to make money—our goal was more motivating our athletes and getting all the Level Fives in our area together in one gym,” says Kalnicki.

Cheerlebrity and choreographer master classes can be a more substantial investment, as gyms are paying not only for the cache of the cheerlebrity but also for all of the costs involved with getting him or here there. “Keep in mind that you have to pay the agreed-upon fee, airline tickets, hotel and food,” advises Murphy of Envy All-Stars. However, even if it turns out to be a break-even or losing proposition, master classes can often provide long-term benefits that outweigh the short-term expense. For Envy All-Stars, Nowlin’s visit provided needed name recognition and a promotional boost for their relatively new gym.

Timing should also be taken into consideration. Koenig recommends hosting master classes and specialty clinics on days that the gym is closed in order to turn extra profit; she also typically holds them during times that athletes don’t have school. “Summer and Christmas break camps/clinics are great because most parents and children are looking for something to do,” says Koenig.

Making the Most of It
Getting creative with the clinic/class name or using a theme can generate extra interest. For example, Carolina Crossfire Cheer’s “Fit and Flex” often has a waitlist, and Cheer Factor’s “T.O.P.” denoted the elite nature of the clinic. When working with a cheerlebrity, his or her name can act as a marketing tool in itself—the bigger the cheerlebrity, the bigger the draw.

Offering incentives is another way to set your clinic apart from others. “Incentives can range from giving $5 off registration to those who bring a friend to offering a T-shirt to the first 12 that enroll,” suggests Koenig. She adds that it’s important to find out what other gyms in your area offer and at what price before making any final decisions.

Classes and clinics can also serve as a springboard for more of the same. Cheer Factor plans to hold “T.O.P” on a bimonthly basis, and Kalnicki says that “everyone wants to be invited. A month before T.O.P, we started to see a lot of the older girls stepping up and younger girls trying to get to that point.”

At Envy All-Stars, Murphy capitalized on the popularity of the Kiara Nowlin tumbling clinic by planning a follow-up fundraising event for “Kiara’s Cause” with Nowlin and fellow cheerlebrities Bianca Treger and Jenee Cruise. “My senior girls will be hosting them and a portion of the money raised will go to JDRF for research on juvenile diabetes,” says Murphy.

Why They Matter
The most obvious benefits of a specialty clinic are for the students. By bringing in a cheerlebrity her athletes admired, Murphy says her students were hugely motivated and ready to attempt difficult moves they weren’t trying before Nowlin came around. At Cheer Factor, the “T.O.P.” clinic coaxed athletes out of their social comfort zone by mixing them on teams with advanced athletes from other gym locations and high schools. Specialty clinics geared at areas like stunts or jumps can also give athletes more aptitude in an area that may have previously been an individual weakness.

From a gym owner’s perspective, specialty clinics and master classes can set your program apart and generate buzz in the community. Depending on the type of event, you may be able to obtain media coverage and raise further awareness about your gym and its activities. At the very least, it’s a unique opportunity to attract new athletes and convert them into committed customers. Says Koenig, “Hosting specialty clinics or classes can also bring in non-gym members and allow them to see what your program is about.”

-Diana Bocco

The Cheerlebrity Phenomenon, Part 3

Under Pressure

Speaking of Justin Bieber, in many cases, social media tools like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram have made (or at least aided) the careers of certain cheerlebrities. Gardner has more than 15,000 Twitter followers and Rule more than 16,000, while Nowlin has no less than three fake impersonators. But, Sykes emphasizes, with great social power comes great responsibility. Not only will fans be watching a cheerlebrity’s performance for any hint of a mistake, but the cheer public will be monitoring every tweet and every post for lapses in judgment or perceived flaws in character.

“You have to make sure that they understand that responsibility comes with their platform, meaning if we have a bad practice, they can’t go on Twitter and say, ‘I hate my coach,’ or ‘I hate cheer.’ You are a role model now,” says Sykes. “Even though they’re your feelings and you have a right to your own feelings, you have a responsibility now. The fleas come with the dogs.”

Gardner speaks cautiously yet diplomatically about social media: “Social media has been a huge part of becoming recognized in the cheer world, and I am thankful for its impact; however, I also see social media used as a weapon in our industry to tear down athletes, so to me it is a double-edged sword.”

Just cruising through Twitter reveals a not-so-nice underbelly of cheerleading fandom: One tweet from a user directed at Maddie read, “Maddie Gardner having a tv show…. #overrated #sorrynotsorry

Add that increased visibility to intense competition, and the mix could be detrimental if coaches don’t get involved, Pascale says.

“Considering how difficult the scoresheet is right now in making these kids do so much within two and a half minutes, I think good coaches try to alleviate that pressure by making these kids have more fun,” Pascale says. “If these cheerlebrities don’t succeed, the next morning, there is no fun for them. It’s agony. And I don’t think it’s fair. Does it make them tougher? I’m sure.”

Gardner herself seems to have lost some love for the “cheerlebrity” concept.

“Recently I have noticed many athletes trying to become ‘cheerlebrities’ and I feel as though it has become negative,” she said. “From my own experience, I discourage anyone from trying to become a cheerlebrity. I do not consider myself to even be one, and I do not think it is important to have a title. I became recognized in the sport because I loved what I did and I put all my heart and effort into it. I was not trying to become famous in the cheer world; I was just doing what I loved to do and was recognized because I expressed my true passion for cheerleading.”

Sykes, however, says he only sees the cheerlebrity phenomenon escalating. “I think it’s going to get bigger, because what I’ve seen in the past two or three years, it’s just like mainstream sports,” he says. “People who sell shoes, even events, they’re promoting these kids now because they know these kids have a following. It’s crazy. I can say something over Twitter, and when Whitney retweets it, I get 15 new followers within five minutes.”

Sarah Gardner, Maddie’s mother, sees both the positives and negatives inherent in cheerlebrity. “I don’t think there are any fantastic benefits to Maddie being in the spotlight, but she has met amazing people—some of whom will be instrumental in her future and some who will be lifelong friends,” Gardner shares. “She has learned to handle public criticism with grace and, as a result, become very ‘thick-skinned,’ and she’s developed a strong work ethic. In retrospect, there are some perks but not what one might imagine them to be.”

Jamie Beckman