A thought-bubble about cheerleading

At its heart, the most basic job of a professional sporting event is to make money. You’ve got to get people there, get them enjoying themselves and get them to come back and do it all again, preferably with their friends.  Some leagues may be in the lucky position of having their funding completely independent of their ability to draw and keep a crowd. Most places, though, most places need a crowd and need their fans.

People have to enjoy themselves  enough to want to come back and they have to want to bring their friends as well.  The thing that is bothering me is where cheerleaders fit into this. And while I acknowledge that cheerleading is a pretty cool and athletic thing to do in its own right, that’s often not what we see on field and not the point of what we see on the field.

When cheerleading, in any of its various forms works, it unites the crowd. Being part of a united crowd is a straight up hit in the happy brain chemicals for most people. When people talk about amazing sport crowd experiences, things like singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with the English Rugby crowd, or Sweet Caroline at the Red Sox come up.  Being part of a loud, united crowd is an experience had by people who are enjoying themselves and who are going to come back.

Most crowds I’ve been in divide from each other when cheerleaders are dancing. And the closer that dancing veers into erotic dancing, the further apart from each other the crowd is pushed.  I have now reached the point where I auto-tune-out the moment dancers bounce into the arena.  Of course, this is not a problem if the crowd you have and want to keep and want to increase are there for the dancing. Or consider watching scantily-clad women gyrate as part of their ‘rights’ as sports fans.

Part of my reason for the auto-tune-out dancers induce is that repeated exposure has shown that this part of the event is not aimed at me and my interests are completely irrelevant. I’ve spent enough time somewhere between bored, annoyed and appalled (at the outfits, routines and crowd reactions) to know that I’m happier elsewhere.  And honestly I’m generally pretty easy to entertain. I’ll cheer the damn mascot race.

It’s not only hard to re-connect with the game after a bout of dancing, it’s hard to rebuild respect for the franchise and the chunk of the crowd that want stripper dancing as entertainment at their sporting event.  I know that a bunch of people will think I’m whinging about something that’s a harmless bit of fun. I’m way too tired of having Feminism 101 discussions to talk about the objectification of women as entertainment, but I can tell you that it’s a damn unwelcoming environment.  I choose to take my money to sports and codes that make other entertainment choices between bouts of sporting.

I really enjoyed the KBO, which is a league that heavily relies on cheer-leading. There’s a very strong gender divide between the roles of the male and female cheerleaders. The male cheerleaders actually lead the cheering – they direct the crowd as to what cheers to perform and what actions in each particular cheer sequence come next. The female cheerleaders demonstrate the cheers. And also perform dance routines. Some of these were unexpectedly charming and delightful and some of them were as cringe-worthy as the very worst sexy-teen-cheerleaders B-grade movie. I never knew what I was going to get, so I gave it much more of a chance.  But still, when the family in the seat next to you are doing their level best to distract their kids and stop them watching, it’s a miss. You’ve lost a part of the crowd that you could have just as easily kept.

When cheerleading works, it really works. Something as simple as the call-and-response of “Go, go, Bandits, go!” is cheerleading – and it’s massively effective cheerleading. A crowd that gets dancers but doesn’t dance themselves is having a substantially less fun experience than the crowd that is actively participating.

So I’m conflicted about cheerleading. A lot of the sexy-cheerleader-dancing not only leaves me cold, but kicks me out of the crowd-feel. It reminds me, often brutally, that whatever passion I have for the game or the team, this particular team is unlikely to consider my comfort or interests particularly important.  That they’re almost certainly invested in a vision of sports that has no place for me, as I persistently and weirdly continue to not be a blokey-bloke performing bloke-iness.

Strangely, I don’t want to feel like a cash-vending machine for a team. I want to feel that they value me. Just a little bit. Just enough to let me be comfortable at the game.

*Things I didn’t check any research on and don’t have any references for because wow that’s hard to do when you don’t have access to an academic library:

  • Participation -> engagement and buy-in. Seen it demonstrated all the time in the development of business plans, change management and I’ve come across it a heap in education theory. Haven’t seen it in relation to building crowds and don’t have access to anything academic that might have been written on it.
  • What makes a great crowd experience. This is all entirely anecdotal and reflects my priorities and those of my friends, which is obviously a self-selected group.
  • How do people really feel when skimpy dancers come on the field? There’s got to have been some research because it’s pretty much always a point of contention for sports that are trying to promote themselves as an event for the community-as-a-whole.

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