Women are still lining up to be pro cheerleaders

September 09, 1993|By Jennifer Bojorquez | Jennifer Bojorquez,McClatchy News Service

The showdown started shortly after 6 p.m. earlier this week, the first night of "Monday Night Football" season. There was kicking, screaming and sweating for three hours or more. Each team fighting for recognition as the best. Each individual fighting for a spot on the Pro Bowl team.

Everybody fighting for their 15 minutes in the spotlight.

It's a five-month battle where the winners walk away with endorsement contracts, calendars or maybe even their own trading cards, while the losers go home empty-handed, or sometimes even lose their jobs. It's the battle of the professional cheerleader squads, and it's just as competitive as the sports they support.

"Sure, we look closely at the competition," says Kelli McGonagill, director of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. "We want to see what they've been working on in the off-season."

Competitive? Sure. Each year thousands of women try out but only a few hundred make the squads. The ones who make the toughest squads -- the National Football League's Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders or the National Basketball Association's Los Angeles Laker Girls -- get lots of TV exposure and just maybe a shot at fame.

The average pro sports cheerleader is not someone who cheered in high school and thinks she might like to cheer as an adult. She is a professional entertainer. The typical cheerleader -- or "sports entertainer," as some prefer to be called -- is a 22-year-old female with 10 years or more of dance experience and plans for a career in some aspect of show business.

Ms. McGonagill likes the tradition, the glamour and the attention she gets from being associated with a professional sports team.

But why, in this age when women are told they can be anything they want, do anything they choose, do so many want to be cheerleaders?

After all, the pay is bad, the hours are long, and many see their job as sexist.

But this year alone more than 1,100 women tried out for the 34 spots on the Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad.

"They want to be part of a great tradition," says Ms. McGonagill. "And nowadays they don't have to be ashamed of that."

The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders are paid $15 per game and they must attend mandatory three-month cheerleading camps during the summer and daily workouts lasting three to four hours during the season.

This is the average pay and work hours for most professional cheerleaders.

They say they are not promoting a cheesecake image.

"My blood boils whenever I hear them criticized like that," says Bobbi Brodt, general manager of USA Productions, which hires cheerleaders for the Sacramento Kings, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers.

"These women are getting a great opportunity here. Do people say that about professional dancers or artists? They wear more revealing clothing than cheerleaders."

The professional cheerleading business peaked in the '70s when the Dallas Cowboys came up with a way of marketing their cheerleaders. They dressed them with bare midriffs, hot pants and cowboy boots and called them part of America's Team.

The strategy worked. Some of the cheerleaders became as famous as the people they cheered for. There were Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader trading cards and dolls. There was even a TV movie about the squad, starring Jane Seymour.

In the NBA, the Lakers formed the Laker Girls in 1976. This group emphasized dance. Soon, they, too, became well-known.

Then came the hard times or, as Jay Howarth, coordinator of the Denver Broncos cheerleading squad, prefers to call it, "the developmental years."

"In the '80s, stadiums changed and we went from live marching bands to big screens and it wasn't the same," she says.

Many NFL teams let go of their cheerleading squads. Six of the NFL's 28 teams -- the Detroit Lions, the New York Giants, the New York Jets, the Cleveland Browns, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears -- do not have cheerleading teams now.

"Not every team had squads," says Ms. Brodt of USA Productions. "But some teams let them go because of the weather, or because the fans didn't support them. At the professional level, you get a lot of people who are more into statistics than cheerleaders."

So the cheerleaders changed their act. Many dropped the yell and, like the Laker Girls, concentrated more on dance.

Fans liked the change. The Denver Broncos, which dropped cheerleaders 14 years ago, is adding them for the first time this year.

"We've had incredible support from the community," says Ms. Howarth. "They appreciate what we do and they realize that we're professionals.

"They are not there as cheesecake," says Ms. Howarth. "They are there to perform."

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