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Volume 20 No. 42
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Varsity’s boss helps cheerleading bring it on

Jeff Webb’s company, Varsity, first began running cheerleading competitions in 1980. Some 37 years later, cheerleading has gained provisional status from the International Olympic Committee with the hope that the sport could become part of the Olympic Games in the future. This week’s World Cheerleading Championships in Orlando will provide a platform for competitors from 63 countries. “It’s men and women, it’s athleticism, it’s entertainment,” Webb said. “And it skews younger.”

Varsity is still deeply involved in the business of cheerleading, by running competitions and camps that will attract close to 1 million teenagers this year. But since 2010 the company has expanded to include uniform manufacturing for 20 sports and graduation-related products such as class rings and yearbooks.

On the week before cheerleading’s grandest competition, Webb shared his thoughts with staff writer Michael Smith on where the sport is going and the prospects for international growth.

Was there a tipping point for cheerleading?
It’s been gradual growth ­— it’s more complicated in this country. Most sports are built from the top down. Typically, a country or a federation would first identify a sport and then provide funding and training with facilities and equipment to make the sport go. In most cases, you need that top-down support. In this country, it develops at the grassroots level with parents and local coaches. We’ve also gone through this whole discussion about whether cheerleading is a sport or not a sport. We don’t want to do anything to hurt traditional cheerleading because it provides amazing value to our colleges and high schools, but on the international front cheerleading isn’t normally associated with schools. It’s more about the competition.

Jeff Webb: “As ESPN’s footprint grew, our exposure grew and cheerleading began to resemble more of a sport.”
Photo by: VARSITY

How is cheerleading perceived internationally?
In most countries, cheerleading is in its infancy. Varsity has spent the last 10 to 15 years planting seeds, and as American cheerleading gained more visibility, more people around the world want to do it. So, we’re now training instructors and sending them overseas. Most sports ministries in other countries will not support a sport that’s not recognized by the IOC, which is why the provisional status is so important.

Does gymnastics help or hurt the cause for cheerleading?
While there are some common moves in cheerleading and gymnastics, they’re really different. We see the two sports as being complementary.

What is the sponsor interest in cheerleading?
We [Varsity] are the endemic sponsor, if you will. Gatorade has been around a long time. I’d say there’s growing interest, and it looks like the sponsorship landscape is changing beyond the signage and commercials. Now it seems like, with the availability of data, the ability to connect directly with a target audience is where sponsors are going. We think we bring great value there. We’re developing a new sponsorship program that we’re going to launch in the next 45 days that will bring some of the unique benefits sponsors are looking for with TV, social media, sampling and other assets.

Has the question about whether cheerleading is a sport been put to rest?
Yes. Cheerleading is over 100 years old and traditionally it’s been a leadership activity to generate crowd participation and coordinate school spirit on campus. I brought the concept of adding athleticism and entertainment to cheerleading, while not supplanting the leadership piece. That caught on very quickly with the help of ESPN, which was in its early days as well. As ESPN’s footprint grew, our exposure grew and cheerleading began to resemble more of a sport.

The growth and evolution of cheerleading, what the sport stands for, what it means to the schools, all of that has been very important. We know what it delivers, what it does for their confidence and conditioning, and that it’s easy to believe in.