This is Not a Democracy, It's a Cheerocracy
May 27, 2020 11:59 AM   Subscribe

Matt Stoller writes about Varsity Brands, and its stranglehold on cheerleading: "The most unpopular extractive arrangement for many of its contests is “Stay to Play,” where non-local teams must book a high-priced Varsity-approved hotel to play in the competition. Staying with a friend or a cheaper place gets a team kicked out of the tournament, and the gym owner fined. These tactics inflated prices in the primary market for cheer competitions, and in the secondary market of apparel and equipment. They also just make cheerleading less fun, or as one person told me, they “kill the spirit of cheer.”

The above quote is from part two.

Stoller also appeared on a podcast about the subject.
posted by benoliver999 (14 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
the Bain Capital-owned corporation

Is there anything that they can't take over and extract wealth from? This is so depressing.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 12:02 PM on May 27, 2020 [18 favorites]

Not really surprising honestly. The fact that anti-trust has been asleep at the wheel, especially for more niche markets is pretty par for the course. Wish it were different.
posted by jmauro at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2020 [3 favorites]

John Rogers, the showrunner of Leverage, had a great blog post about the cheerleading episode.
posted by Zonker at 1:20 PM on May 27, 2020 [9 favorites]

And here's the class-action antitrust complaint filed against Varsity Brands last night!
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 1:50 PM on May 27, 2020 [13 favorites]

Competitive, not-at-school cheerleading weirds me the eff out not quite as much as child beauty pageants but its right up there. Its not that I don't find it athletic and I suppose therefore deserving of some place for peak competitors to congregate and achieve but it seems so regressive and in the case of no team without clear objective.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2020 [5 favorites]

Ogre Lawless, in contrast I find school based cheerleading to weirder. Not-in-school/ club cheerleading is athleticism and sport for the passion, rather than having your own athleticism and talents take a backseat to other athletes.
posted by raccoon409 at 2:24 PM on May 27, 2020 [16 favorites]

Glad to see this here - I've been subscribed to Stoller's newsletter for some time now and he does a lot of great work ringing the anti-monopoly alarm and regularly brings a ton of evidence and research on how terrible things are.
posted by mit5urugi at 2:34 PM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

Friendly reminder that cheerleading is the most dangerous sport for teens to participate in. Like, parents need to have serious conversation with a kid who is interested in doing it past age 12.

Why? It is gymnastics in the air with no nets or padding.

This makes the monopoly even more dangerous. Even if another company found a way to make cheerleading safe, innovators can't begin to compete. Reminds me of the NFL.
posted by Freecola at 3:11 PM on May 27, 2020 [21 favorites]

My 12-year-old son left competitive gymnastics a little over a year ago, and tried out competitive cheerleading. He left the cheer gym quickly because he was not placed on a team that was a high-enough level to make use of his tumbling skills, and because he felt the boys were not well-integrated into the choreography, spending part of the routine literally hiding behind the girls as they made pyramids.

It was very cool, and I think exposure to the very obviously-gay coach, the other very-obviously-gay coach, and the obviously-gay male cheerleaders from the local Big 10 university who sometimes came to lead stunting classes was part of why he came out in this past year. As a person who plans everything, he even knows how flamboyant he aims at being: less so than Coach Eric, moreso than Coach Brendan.

The monthly cost of training was much lower than gymnastics, especially because boys are not charged monthly coaching fees. But when I found out about stay-to-play, I was appalled. We'd often cut costs for gymnastics meets by staying in inexpensive hotels or rooms in family-occupied AirBnBs. Whereas in gymnastics, competitions were mostly with other gyms within a 90-minute drive, with one or two competitions a year that ventured as far as 200 miles away (our nearest big city!), his cheer competition schedule included trips to Lexington, KY; Atlanta, GA; and Orlando, FL. We live in Michigan. All with stay-to-play hotels at $150/night for three to five nights. We can't afford that. I'm glad he didn't fall in love with cheerleading, because I let him get started before I fully understood the commitment we were making, and I would not have enjoyed telling me we just plain couldn't afford it.

When he dropped out, the gym owners were pissed. They claimed it was because he was so vital to the routine that they'd have to re-jigger all the choreography at a great cost of time and expense, though in fact they simply moved a girl from a lower-level team into his spot and it seems to have been pretty much seamless. But one reason teams pounce on boys is that there are many fewer co-ed teams competing than all-girl ones, so a good team with a boy on it faces less competition and has more chance to get "bids" to major competitions, which come in a range of levels but can rise to the level of the entire team's travel, lodging, and meet fees being paid.

We never did get the $370 uniform we ordered, or the two $85 pairs of shoes we were required to buy. I wanted all these things because we might be able to recoup our costs by selling them at half price during new-uniform season. I have recently emailed the gym again, to no avail. It only just occurred to me recently that the amount of money we paid for merchandise we didn't receive is enough to threaten a small claims court suit, so I'm going to mention that next, I think.

I was worried about injuries when he was with the gym—they had a good competition gymnastics floor, but very little in the way of TumblTraks or trampoline floors of the kinds that gymnasts learn skills on before progressing to doing them on the floor. They had no foam pit at all.

His next sport were diving, which he loved; and Trampoline & Tumbling, which he also loved. He's not sure, though, what he wants to go back to when gyms re-open.

It is very fun to see the glee of a diving coach when a former gymnast starts coming to practice. They have so much control of their bodies and such good awareness in the air. At my son's first diving practice, the coach said to me, "He's a natural!" which might be true, but I said, "Well, maybe, but he's also had seven years of intensive gymnastics training."
posted by Orlop at 4:46 PM on May 27, 2020 [37 favorites]

Can you file a charge-back with your credit card or something along those lines?
posted by Autumnheart at 8:44 PM on May 27, 2020 [1 favorite]

My sister was cheerleader in high school and in college for a D2 school, I was a part-timer on my university's club polo team for a few months because my roommate was an excellent rider and they needed some people for the practice squad, and I knew how to ride.

Guess which of us had to pay for all our equipment, had to host fund-raisers for other events (mostly football, but other stuff too), which had 30 hours of required charity (on top of appearing at events), and had to pay for our own travel expenses for camps and games?

Which surprise surprise, is exactly how it was in high school too. I played high school team sports, never paid a cent for equipment or travel to events.

One of her teammates injured her back in high school when they dropped her - school didn't a pay a cent, while the school paid for 3 ACL surgeries for my teammates in 1 year. In college a teammates' nose was broken and the girl was basically kicked off the cheer team for it.

If you think it looks like a scam from far away, it looks even worse up close.
posted by The_Vegetables at 12:02 PM on May 28, 2020 [10 favorites]

Orlop, if your son is ever interested in a sport where he can probably progress very quickly have him try Olympic weightlifting. It's extremely technical and requires perfect body positioning, so it can take a long time to get proper form in the lifts--unless you've got a background like a gymnast, who combine bodily awareness with the flexibility and strength necessary to hit all of the right positions during the lifts.
posted by Anonymous at 5:26 PM on May 28, 2020

My school didn't *allow* cheerleading per the argument raccoon409 alludes to--"don't cheer on the boys--find your own sport. (This was b4 rise of competitive cheerleading.)

So I clearly have a bias. I do find cheerleading creepy and yes, often needlessly dangerous. I was a bit shocked to read that it causes 50% of all catastrophic sports injuries for females.

I'm not all at surprised by the scamming or pay to play. Other sports (soccer in the U.S. particularly) face similar scams. The combination of packaging pretty little girls in cheerleading and gymnastics while ripping off their parents unnerves me. (Again, biased.)
posted by mrgrimm at 7:44 AM on May 29, 2020

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