Journal of Sport and Exercise Studies/Business, Politics and Sport 2011/Making Cheerleading an Official Sport

Gus Gardner, 2011
Original copy

The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders perform on the flight deck for the crew of USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75) during the taping of the FOX NFL Pregame Show . Truman is on its maiden six-month deployment to the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Image by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Tina M. Ackerman

Currently cheerleading is not classified as a sport as determined in the recent case of Biediger v. Quinnipiac University, and is therefore not recognised under current American Title IX legislation (Biediger, Lawler, Overdevest & et al, 2009 ). This decision was made on the basis that cheerleading does not meet the requirements of a sport. Many cheerleaders are calling for this to change, arising from a desire for respect and recognition, and argue that their ‘cheering’ is just as athletic as mainstream sports (West & Grindstaff, 2006). This article considers the politics and business surrounding cheerleading and asks the ultimate question of whether cheerleading should be classified as a sport. To do this we examined key areas such as what defines sport, if cheerleading could operate as a sporting business, and the politics and common opinion on this issue.

Sport can be defined as a physically challenging event, governed by a set of rules, and of a competitive nature (Hoye, Nicholson, Stewart & Westerbeek, 2009). Through analysis of cheerleading we have determined that it does not fit this definition. Subsequently we suggested the implementation of a subset sport called ‘competitive cheer’ or similar. We considered whether cheerleading could be a sustainable and profitable sport, based on statistics centered on participation, infrastructure, and sponsorship. The topic of cheerleading as a sport has led to much political debate on factors including the politics surrounding current legislation, such as Title IX (Simon, 2005).

We gained local, national, and international opinions on whether cheerleading or ‘competitive cheer’ should be considered an official sport. The opinions gained include those from American cheerleaders, Australian National Rugby League cheerleaders, and local and international cheerleading executives. Through key interviews conducted at a local and national level we determined some of the political and business issues surrounding this topic.

Based on these key areas identified, we believe if cheerleading could develop a consistent scoring system with a competitive format, and operate under a professional system, it should be considered a sport under Title IX legislation. Being recognised as an official sport within America would set a precedence in making cheerleading an official sport within Australia.

Video: Columbus High School Cheerleading 08 STATE CHAMPS 2:40mins


Currently cheerleading is not classified as a sport as determined in the recent case of Biediger v. Quinnipiac University (2009), and is therefore not recognised under current American Title IX legislation. Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs (Simon, 2005). This article considers the politics and business surrounding cheerleading at a local, national, and international level and asks the ultimate question of whether cheerleading should be classified as a sport. To do this we examined key areas such as what defines sport, the politics surrounding cheerleading as a sport, if cheerleading could operate as a sporting business, and the common opinion in making cheerleading a sport. To gain specific opinions on this issue, we conducted local and national interviews with the Canberra Raiders (2011) and the Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation (2011) (AASCF). Ultimately we determined that if cheerleading was recognised as an official sport within America it could help set a precedence in making cheerleading an official sport within Australia.

What is SportEdit

There are multiple examples that have helped to define what encompasses sport. According to Schwarz & Hunter (2008: 4) sport is defined as “activities, experiences, or business enterprises that center on athletics, health and wellness, recreation, and leisure time activities”. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation (2011) a sport is governed by rules and defined as a physical activity which involves propelling a mass through space or overcoming the resistance of a mass, a contest or competition against or with an opponent, and the acknowledged primary purpose of the competition is a comparison of the relative skills of the participants. The Women’s Sports Foundation seems to follow the traditional definition of sport, in that sport must be physically challenging, governed by set rules, and competitive. Many believe (Schwarz, et al. 2008) one of the common misconceptions about sport, in that it should be competitive, and have a standard set of rules, equipment, and facilities. This may be true in sports such as soccer, hockey, and basketball, although does cheerleading still ‘fit’ the definition of a sport. The term ‘sport’ is an all-inclusive term covering all the operations that make the event happen, and goes beyond what happens on the playing field. Cheerleading is consistent with Schwarz et al (2004: 4) definition, although it is not consistent with the Women’s Sports Foundation’s requirements of a sport. With the criteria of sport in mind, is a cheerleading squad’s primary purpose competition? The majority of cheerleading squads do not compete in any competitions, and their purpose is mainly entertainment and motivation (Ninemire, 2011). There are many cheerleading squads that do compete, although many of these competitions have different rules and structures, and are operated individually.

Video: About the Women's Sport Foundation 2min

There have been arguments proposed that the sporting element of cheerleading should be called “competitive cheer” The implications and benefits of making cheerleading a legitimate sport go beyond recognition, and include greater equality for women’s sport, and a greater opportunity for women at a college level. Nancy Hogshead-Makar (2011) an advocate at the Women’s Sports Foundation stated that “As long as it’s actually operating as a sport, we welcome it into the women’s sports tent,” she went on to say that “like gymnastics or figure skating, this is another aesthetic sport that if done right could provide lots more girls with legitimate sports experiences.” Girls still enjoy 1.3 million fewer opportunities to participate in college sports, and this statistic could change with the introduction of cheerleading into the sporting field (West et al, 2006).

Politics surrounding cheerleading as a sportEdit

Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs and requires that activities that receive federal financial assistance comply with gender equity in school sporting programs. Since the establishment of Title IX female sports participation has increased (Simon, 2005). Title IX requires schools to pass one of three tests. Firstly, the numbers of male and female athletes are to be substantially proportional to total numbers of males and females enrolled, secondly, that the school has a history and continuing practice of program expansion for an underrepresented sex, and thirdly, that the interests and abilities of an underrepresented sex have been fully and effectively accommodated (Simon, 2005).

Video: Why everyone deserves an opportunity to play 1:10min (Women's Sport Foundation, 2011).

Many schools and colleges cannot offer evidence of compliance to rule one and two, although many loosely comply with the third rule by “fully and effectively” accommodating female student’s interests. If cheerleading was organised into a ‘functioning sport’ that meets the requirements of a sport it could vastly help the unevenness between female and male sport. It would also help institutions meet the requirement of continuing the practice of program expansion for an under-represented sex (Gavdra, 2002).

The politics surrounding making cheerleading a sport are extensive. In a recent case, Biediger v. Quinnipiac University (2009) an American district court ruled that competitive cheer squads could not be used to meet Title IX requirements, as it does not meet the requirements of a sport (Hosick, 2010). Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that competitive cheer does not comply with the U.S. Department of Education standards for varsity sports, in that it does not meet the definition of sport. Underhill (2010) did concede that Quinnipiac University did help in the creation of a cheerleading governing body, although the body failed to create a consistent scoring system with consistent opponents. Underhill (2010) stated that “Competitive cheer may, sometime in the future, qualify as a sport under Title IX,” and also wrote “Today, however, the activity is still too underdeveloped and disorganized to be treated as offering genuine varsity athletics participation for students.”

The competitive cheer community and its governing body USA Cheer in response is working on developing the organisation and structure of the sport. USA Cheer Executive Director Bill Seely (2010) stated “We believe that we are close to establishing an intercollegiate sport with a distinctive new name and competition format,” and continued “We believe our plans will meet the requirements of Title IX, work within the college calendar, and be structured so that it can have strong participation from schools across the country” (Hosick, 2010).

United States District Court Decision Biediger v. Quinnipiac University (2009)

Can cheerleading be operated as a sporting business?Edit

The inclusion of cheerleading into Title IX legislation could also be beneficial for colleges from a business perspective. One of these benefits could be increased enrollments with young athletes being attracted to colleges that offer strong sporting cheerleading programs. A second benefit could be increased government funding, through a wider variety of sports provided. A third benefit would be that the colleges would be seen as accommodating student interests, and as such meeting the third rule of Title IX legislation. Modern day sports require an organisation to go beyond what happens on the playing surface, in that the core sporting product is no longer independently sufficient in providing entertainment and economy (Hoye et al, 2009). We question whether cheerleading could survive in this unstable and competitive sporting market.

Cheerleading does have the potential to be operated and survive as a sporting business. This is based on the growing participation, sponsorship interests, and the infrastructure base. In 2010, statistics showed that 3.3 million American athletes participate in cheerleading (The Active Network, 2011), and the activity has seen a 20% increase in participation since 2000.

Modern day sports rely on the money that sponsorship brings. Advertisers and sponsors could use cheerleading as an effective way to reach a unique market segment. Cheerleaders are widely considered as role models, leaders, and trend setters among their communities. As such the ‘sport’ of cheerleading could attract sponsors looking to influence this predominantly youth market (The Active Network, 2011).

If cheerleading was included under the sporting banner it would require the necessary infrastructure. There are multiple examples of universities with substantial cheerleading facilitates that could be used for the ‘sport’ of cheerleading, including the University of Louisville (2011), Morehead State University, University of Kentucky, and Long Beach University of Alabama. Many of these facilities include arenas, gymnasiums, playing fields, and multi-complexes that could be easily used for the sport of cheerleading.

Hamburg Blue Angels 2006. Image by Gulp

The opinions of selected cheerleaders within America and AustraliaEdit


In a paper by West et al (2006), researchers traveled to multiple cheerleading squads located around America, and asked cheerleaders whether cheerleading should be a sport. One quote from a competitive cheerleader encapsulated the participants overall view. He stated “for cheerleading to be a sport, it goes from squad to squad. A squad that competes, that has competed in the past, they want to compete in the future, and they’re working to compete. I’ll say that squad is a sport.” Researchers also found that a consistent view was that competitive orientation alone does not make cheerleading a sport. Cheerleaders also stated “it is also the athleticism and skill” that makes cheerleading a sport.

Newspaper article: Born on Sideline, Cheering Clamors to Be Sport (Thomas, 2011)

Australian All Star Cheerleading FederationEdit

In a primary interview conducted with the program Director of the Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation (2011),Rosemary Sims-James, she stated that “Cheerleading should be an official sport, and its own sport, and not an arm or leg of dance or gymnastic”. She went on to state that “Cheerleading is a combination of stunting, baskets, pyramids, jumping combinations, team tumbling, and dance. It requires hours of progressive training each week. There are very few sports that are more intense than the training of competitive cheerleading. It is like the Ironman of performing arts”.

Canberra RaidersEdit

To gain local opinions on the business and politics of making cheerleading an official sport, the authors conducted an interview with Kait Ludwig, Coach and former cheerleader of the Canberra Raiders (2011). Kait gave the following observations to the authors questions:

ALAN TONGUE. Image by paddynapper
  • Do you think cheerleading should be classified as a sport?

In Australia, it’s a bit difficult to analyse cheerleading as many associate cheerleading purely with the NRL (2011) and its cheerleaders / dance teams. However, there are many ‘American’ cheerleading squads that exist and compete against one another around the country. If you look at the definition of a sport, there are arguments both for and against the inclusion of cheerleading as a sport but this differs between the two styles that are here in Australia. The Australian Sports Foundation (2011) defines sport as “a human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill, which, by its nature and organisation, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport.” ‘American’ cheerleading fits these criteria as it satisfies the following:

1) Achieves a result: entertains crowds

2) Physical Exertion: flips, throws, stunts etc.

3) Competitive: All Star Cheerleading Association holds competitions throughout the year.

4) Generally Accepted: Most find the ‘American’ style of cheerleading to be similar to gymnastics.

NRL cheerleading generally satisfies the first two requirements of the definition. However, NRL squads only perform at their own home games. At finals games, both squads are invited to attend but rarely take part in a ‘dance – off’. Some may argue that the lack of a ‘competition’ element excludes NRL cheerleading from being a real sport. I think that American cheerleading is definitely a sport but the non-competitive NRL cheerleading is more of a social/dance hobby.

The NRL may look into developing a competition schedule for the cheer squads but I’m sure that with their busy schedules, this would be sitting at the bottom of the priorities list.

  • Do you believe cheerleading could operate as a separate sporting business?

Cheerleading often goes hand in hand with modeling/promotional work. In both forms of cheerleading in Australia, squads can make money from sponsors and promotional work or performances (usually at corporate events). This is how many squads can afford to pay their cheerleaders and raise funds to compete.

I don’t think cheerleading in Australia has a big enough profile to operate as a stand alone business. NRL clubs usually make money from their cheerleading squads by attracting several sponsors and inflating the sponsorship fee to make large profits off the girls.

In the USA, The Dallas Cowgirls (2011) (NFL) come under the umbrella of the Dallas Cowboys football team (2011) but they have their own clothing label, TV show and fans. Some might argue that this squad could operate as its own entity.

  • Do you think there would be demand and subsequently participation in making it a sport?

I think there is a small demand to make cheerleading a ‘sport’. However, it usually only comes from the several hundred participants. This type of action would probably require backing and support from the Football Leagues as cheerleading is more a ‘support’ sport under their umbrella.

  • Could making cheerleading a sport help with gender inequity?

I would argue No, purely because we currently have other ‘sports’ that are typically feminine (diving, gymnastics) which possess similar elements of cheerleading. I don’t think that cheerleading becoming a sport would have any impact on sporting equality especially now when most sports are seeing greater participation from both genders.

Recognised under Title IX legislation would set precedence in making cheerleading an official sport within AustraliaEdit

Recognising Cheerleading as a sport under Title IX legislation, could help set a precedence in making cheerleading its own sport within Australia. Currently cheerleading is a sub-set sport within the recognised sport of gymnastics, although it is not a sport in its own right. Gymnastics Australia (2011) has established a separate governing body called the Australian Cheerleading Union (ACU) (2011), for the purposes of regulating cheerleading, and with an longterm view of establishing cheerleading as a sport under the Australian Sports Commission guidelines (AusCheer, 2011). By recognising cheerleading under Title IX legislation the ACU would have a greater evidence base and increased potential in making ‘AusCheer’ its own sport within Australia. This would benefit Australian cheerleading with enhanced recognition, and sporting legitimacy.


This article considers the business and politics surrounding making cheeleading an official sport. To determine whether cheerleading should be classified as an official sport under Title IX we considered the definition of sport, the politics surrounding cheerleading, the business of cheerleading, and the selected opinions of professionals within the industry. We concluded that if cheerleading could be operated under a professional system with a competitive format it should be considered a sport under Title IX. By making it an official sport in America, this could set precedence in making AusCher it own sport within Australia.


  • Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation. (2011). About Us. Retrieved from Australian All Star Cheerleading Federation website:
  • National Rugby League. (2011). The Official Website of the National Rugby League. Retreived from the National Rugby League website:
  • The Australian Sports Commission. (2011). Home Page. Retrieved from the Australian Sports Commission website: