What it's really like being a cheerleader for the NFL, NBA
Updated: May 2, 2022
By Mary Chandler Grisillo
It's a 5:45 a.m. wakeup call for an NFL cheerleader on game day.
Her morning consists of getting game day ready with hair and makeup prior to arriving at the arena.
Once arrived at the arena the sports bras, shorts, and tights complete the look and maybe a little touch up on the red lipstick.
The preparation doesn’t stop there. There’s an hour long practice before the appearances and game start.
After a small snack break following practice, it’s game time and for these cheerleaders. That means being ready to smile for pictures with fans and put on a show during the game.
Crop tops and short skirts might be what comes to mind when first thinking about professional dance for the NFL and NBA. Sure, this is how they came to be, but the roles have evolved over the years.
The professional cheer industry today includes “high performance athletes who train their entire lives to be on a squad.
Football season or not, they are working on and off the field. From pregame dances, timeout routines, public appearances, and community events, there really is no offseason for the athletes.
It all started when the Baltimore Colts (before moving to Indianapolis) were the first NFL team to have professional cheerleaders in the 1960s.
Around 1000 young women tried out and only 40 would be the first Colt’s cheerleaders to make history.
Back then, the requirements to be a Colts cheerleader were; must be slim, attractive, work hard, and be a proud Colt’s ambassador.
From there, NFL cheerleading made a shift. Tex Schramm, the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s, made the call to bring attractive females into the mix of the entertainment.
Originally, Schramm hired models to cheer along the sidelines, but this did not go as planned.
The models, while pretty to look at, were just not equipped to withstand the long hours in the heat. Nor did they have the ability to cheer.
With a little trial and error, Schramm’s next idea was to have dancers on the sidelines, changing the entertainment from just pretty girls simply cheering to impressive choreography executed by trained dancers.
Texie Waterman would become the choreographer of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in1972. Her background of dance combined with her intense drive to make these girls the best they could be, is what catapulted the organization.
The cheerleader squad would soon be known as “America’s Sweethearts”. It started at the Super Bowl in 1976 when a television cameraman gave the DCC’s their time to shine for all of America to see.
With the focus on the beautiful and talented girls proudly wearing their Dallas Cowboys blue, and a wink for the camera from one of the cheerleaders, America began its obsession with the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.
And this became the impetus for other NFL and NBA teams to add the same entertainment to their franchises.
Evolution of professional dance, cheer
Professional cheer and dance is no walk in the park. Sure, it was originally highly focused on looks, but behind their glamorous appearances, these cheerleaders and dancers are elite athletes.
The professional cheerleaders we see today are immensely different from how they came to be in the early 1970s for the Dallas Cowboys, when the purpose of them was to be visual entertainment for the male fan base.
Just like with any sport, it takes dedication and practice. The NFL cheerleaders are not just the face of the game. They are highly trained and extremely talented individuals who have devoted themselves to this profession.
Melissa Whiting, a former NBA dancer for the Chicago Bulls, says that while looks do certainly play a role in achieving the professional level, skills and talent to back it up are the most important.
The NBA has stepped out of the image of just pretty women with poms, into focusing on the incredible athleticism and talent these women possess,” she says.
The level of difficulty for the routines performed proves the growth of this profession.
Dominic Franco, one of the few male professional cheerleaders, says the bar keeps getting raised.
“With dance becoming more mainstream, the level of talent keeps getting higher with each year and allows NFL teams to raise the level of difficulty all around,” said the Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader. “I believe this is a huge difference that fans can see as well.”
Whiting also noted that NBA teams are starting to include men in their dance teams or creating a co-ed dance group.
Environment generally supportive - but not everywhere
Being a professional cheerleader isn’t always about entertaining fans. Sometimes it’s about keeping them positive when the team isn’t performing too well. And that’s not easy with fans.
Teegan Zeh, a current Atlanta Falcons cheerleader, says this part of the job has been inconsistent.
“People are very passionate about their home teams, so they will scream anything they want just to get a reaction,” Zeh said.
Her teammate Tea Hayes noted that fans’ moods can change on a dime too.
“It could range from being supportive and cheering for us to yelling nasty things and getting spit on…true story,” she said. “That was honestly crazy for me to experience this year. Every team has a different fan base, and it’s sad to see the fans who are rude/nasty towards the cheerleaders.”
But sometimes that’s just the job that comes with it.
“There are always the fans that try to tear us down such as commenting on our appearances in negative ways on social media posts, or make rude comments as we are on the side lines or performing,” Whiting acknowledged.
A recent issue involving the Washington Commanders entails allegations against the organization's owner, Dan Snyder having a video made of topless cheerleaders.
Denying these allegations, Dan Snyder looks awfully suspicious.
It's situations like this that highlight a concern among many women that teams having cheerleaders - and doing things like creating a calendar, putting them in skimpy outfits on game day, etc. - objectifies women and creates an easy environment for the kind of scandal that occurred in Washington.
But in today’s professional cheerleading ranks, that kind of objectification appears to be the exception, not the rule.
“While I can’t speak for all teams,” Franco said, “we are constantly surrounded by such a supportive atmosphere that is created by the fans and we are so thankful for that.”
It's not just about 'the look' - but you need that too
But what about the “look” of a professional cheerleader?
"They hire us based on our look anyways and ask us to maintain that look throughout the season," says Hayes. "If any problems come out regarding any of that they will let us know and tell us to watch whatever it is that's changing."
As for the Chicago Bulls, they may demand more control.
“You got your hair dyed and cut at the salon they chose and had to get permission before making an appointment as you could only go every 4-6 weeks,” Whiting recalled. “The Bulls paid for cuts and color; we covered the tip.”
When it came to “weight and figure,” the cheerleaders had to keep up appearances.
“No specific weight requirement, but they did not usually put someone on the team that would not look good in the uniform,” Whiting added.
Dominic Franco believes the motivation for looking good is encouraged in a healthy way.
“One major thing is making sure that we look and feel confident in the uniform. However, we strongly press on proper health and nutrition to make sure we are fueling our bodies properly and sufficiently in order to sustain the physical demands of being an NFL cheerleader,” Franco says, adding that they also have to keep the “look” that is set at the beginning of the season, “which includes hair color, nail color, tans, etc.”
Aside from the rules regarding their overall appearance, there was one rule that was the same for all of them - no relationship or contact with the male players.
“No contact with the players was a big rule,” Whiting says. “We couldn’t even walk down their hallway in the Arena.”
While having the ideal ‘look’ is certainly part of making it to the pros, it ultimately takes a strong dance background and a lot of determination.
“Most teams look for different types of leaps/jumps, pirouettes, a strong technical dance foundation, and stellar performance quality,” Franco says. “Specialty skills such as: tumbling, acrobatics, hip hop skills are not always required for every team but they do help your score during auditions if you have them!”
But making a pro cheer team is also like getting hired at the top level of another job - experience at the top level is preferred.
“The judges and coaches want to see experience on other pro teams and/or persistence trying out more than once because some girls have to try out two or three times before they make it,” Hayes says. “It’s crazy.”
Big time commitment for little money
The time commitment for being a part of the NBA and NFL cheer teams is pretty hefty considering these athletes are often balancing an outside job as their main source of income.
“We practice two times a week for about four to five hours,” Franco says. “On top of that, we also have community appearances, a kids/teens program, home games, and team events on top of those two practices a week.”
Both Hayes and Zeh say they practice twice a week with their respective teams, usually for three hours at a time. Weekly public appearances, community events and games fill up another huge chunk of what would be free time.
When Whiting was with the Chicago Bulls, she practiced twice a week in the evenings for 3-4 hours with the occasional extra practice during the basketball season to work on special performances.
And unlike a professional basketball player or football player, dancers and cheerleaders are not raking in tons of money from their time in practice or performing on and off the field or court with the team.
Generally pay is by the hour for practices, appearances and games and hovers around minimum wage. For some public appearances there may be an added stipend or bonus for participating.
For the Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders, it’s $16 an hour, Hayes says, which includes practice time, games, and appearances.
“It’s not a big money-making career by any means,” she adds.
At the Chicago Bulls, Whiting made $14 an hour for practices, games and appearances, along with a $150 bonus for appearances.
“We are treated with respect from most people in the NBA, except when it comes to pay,” she acknowledges. “The dancers and entertainers are underpaid for the amount of work and time required of them, but that is pretty much across the board for all dance teams.”
These men and women are not cheering for the money. They still need full-time jobs in addition to their roles as a professional cheerleader or dancer. And there's almost an expectation that they will just do it for the glamor of being part of a professional team.
Team dynamic present in tryouts
So what is a professional cheerleading tryout like? They seem to all have one thing in common. They’re intimidating.
Hayes recounts her experience as she tried out for the Falcons.
“Tryouts were super intense because there were 70 of us, and they only take 40 and it happens over the span of legit two days, so it was overall just intimidating.”
Whiting tells of the preparation for tryouts.
“They had a few prep clinics the weeks before tryouts in which you could attend to learn routines for tryouts, perform in front of the coach, and ask any questions you have before tryouts,” she said.
When it came to the actual tryout for the Chicago Bulls, the process was intense, including performing a sequence of skills, then one of the routines with a small group in front of the judges
“After everyone finished, they stood us in a line and had us introduce ourselves on a mic,” Whiting said. “Then they called out a few names for call backs to make them dance again if they needed some clarity.”
This “training camp” started with about 45-50 girls, only 20 making the team at the end of the week.
When Franco tried out for the Chiefs, tryouts included three rounds of auditions - preliminary, semifinal and final round.
“This is the time where we get tested not only on our dancing abilities but other factors, such as football knowledge, organization history, NFL knowledge, public speaking, etc.,” he said. “Our tryout process is very vigorous so that the organization can be confident in the 34 they select to best represent our club.”
Once the intensity and intimidation dies down and the squad is chosen, the cheerleaders and dancers are able to celebrate and begin bonding. bond.
“We are truly all super close and get along very well- it's definitely more like a sisterhood type of vibe with my team,” Hayes says. “You can truly go to anyone with anything and it doesn't matter how old you are or how long you've been on the team.”
The Chiefs cheerleaders also have a good thing going, according to Franco.
“Our team dynamic has always been so amazing since we have 34 individuals who bring different things to the table,” he says. “I think what’s really incredible about our team is that everyone is different and unique in their own way, however we make one cohesive unit that fits together perfectly.”
Unfortunately, not every team is alike in this way. Whiting recalled a different atmosphere at the Bulls.
“The team dynamic when I was a part of the team was very split to be honest. They really stuck to the rookies vs vets state of mind,” she says. “The rookies had to consistently prove themselves even if they had more experience, training or skill than some of the vets. There was even a hierarchy among the vets.”
Challenges still exist
While the cheerleaders often make it look easy as they effortlessly perform their routines, there are plenty of challenges within this profession.
For Hayes it is the constant fear of losing her spot on the team.
“They tell us that our second year is the hardest to make it back on the team, so that’s constantly something on the back of my mind,” she said.
Not only is the “don’t get too comfortable” mindset something to battle, but Franco said the sacrifices made year after year in order to be on the team start to pile up.
“While it is one of the most rewarding experiences I could ever imagine, it is a job that requires sacrifice in order to do." - Franco
For Whiting, the time commitment becomes a huge challenge.
“Your off time is spent practicing in hopes of being in that next game,” she said.
Need for recognition
Although professional cheerleading originated initially as a sexualized role on the sidelines, their presence has become a highly competitive, impressive, and athletic sport in its own right.
And if there’s one thing many of these current professional cheerleaders and dancers would change about the industry if they could, it would be more recognition as athletes.
“The only wish I have would be for more people to realize what we do takes athleticism. We are athletes,” Franco said. “From the outside looking in, it’s hard to see the countless hours and hard work we put into this job. However, I wish people realized that every NFL cheerleader is a true athlete who puts their body through hours of training for this job.”
The industry has certainly grown and it’s time for outsiders to take notice of the dedication and necessary athleticism that is entailed.