Crowds have been cheering since the advent of sports, but it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that organized cheering came to be. In 1883, Great Britain started the trend of cheering and chanting in unison at sports games, but the first official cheer wasn’t performed until 1884 at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.
One member of that Princeton audience, Mark Peebles, brought cheerleading with him to the University of Minnesota and created a specific set of cheers for each different game. Peebles took it upon himself to lead the UOM crowd during football games, but another University of Minnesota student, named Johnny Campbell, took organized cheering even further by coordinating an entire team to the lead the crowd. From that day—November 2, 1898—foward, Campbell was known as the world’s first official cheerleader.
A Man’s Sport
When most people hear the word cheerleading, they think of girls in short skirts. But in fact, the sport was started by men, for men. In 1903, the University of Minnesota created a “Yell Squad” composed of six males, which in turn led to a male cheer fraternity called Gamma Sigma. Texas A&M joined the band wagon in 1905 when they created “The Cheerleading State,” a group of males who led the crowd at football and basketball games. The sport remained dominated by men until the 1920’s—some famous figures like Dwight Eisenhower and Franklin Roosevelt were members of cheer squads in their college days.
Just for Girls
Women finally joined cheerleading in 1923 and began to dominate the sport during World War II when most of the men left to fight. They were not yet allowed to compete in collegiate sports, but were permitted to join cheering squads. Once women took over, cheerleading began to incorporate tumbling, stunting and props like the megaphone, and members of the squad were usually voted in by their classmates, which downplayed the importance of earning one’s spot through skill.
The first women’s uniforms were a far cry from the short skirts that are worn today—the cheerleaders wore ankle-length skirts and varsity sweaters.
The Grandfather of Cheerleading
Cheerleading continued to evolve and become more athletic and competitive in nature. Seeing a need for camps and clinics, Lawrence “Herkie” Herkimer, a former Southern Methodist University cheerleader, formed the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) in 1948. They hosted the first -ever documented cheer clinic one year later in Huntsville, Texas, with just 52 girls in attendance.
NCA continues to be one of the largest cheerleading organizations in the United States, hosting hundreds of camps and competitions yearly. Herkimer did not stop with the establishment of NCA. He went on to create a cheerleading and dance uniform supply company called Cheerleader & Danz Team, invented a prop called the spirit stick, and made up the jump now called the “Herkie.
His contributions to the sport earned him the title “the grandfather of cheerleading.”
A Sport for All Ages
In the beginning, cheerleading took place only at college campuses, but the creation of camps and clinics in the late 1940’s inspired younger people to join the sport. In 1950, a high school squad named the Santa Cruz 49er’s went to a NCA cheer camp hosted by Herkimer. They were the first non-collegiate team to attend. In 1967, pee wee football leagues across the United States started to incorporate Pop Warner cheerleading into their programs. Pop Warner, a U.S. non-profit youth organization, allowed younger athletes without school affiliations to join cheerleading teams. Girls as young as five began to cheer and had the option to continue with the sport through their college days.
Today, over 80% of public schools in the U.S. have cheerleading teams with a majority of the members between the ages of 12 and 17. There are over 3.4 million registered cheerleaders in the nation, and the sport only continues to grow.
Cheerleading Around the World
Although cheerleading has its roots in the United States, it has by no means remained a one-nation sport. During the 1980’s, the British Cheerleading Association (BCA) formed, Cheerleading Quarterly began to circulate worldwide, and cheerleading expanded throughout Europe and Asia. Cheerleading is currently established in 79 countries with over 4.5 million cheerleaders worldwide.
Stepping up the Sport
As organized cheerleading developed, so did the demand for competitions and exhibitions. Teams wanted to see how their skills stacked up against other teams in a more formal, objective setting, and soon the International Cheerleading Foundation (now the WCA) was formed. The first ranked competitions started in 1967 and participating teams would vie for the titles of “Top Ten College Cheerleading Squads” and “Cheerleading All America.”
In 1972, Title IX was passed, opening up competitive sports to female athletes and dramatically changing the face of cheerleading. The sport became much more athletic and further incorporated advanced tumbling and stunts to evolve with the new freedoms of the bill.
Around the same time Title IX passed, the first professional cheerleading teams were established through the NFL. Though the Indianapolis Colts were the first team to host a professional cheer squad, the sport didn’t gain national recognition until the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders—with their revealing outfits and over-the-top routines—were introduced during the 1972-73 season.
The Transformation of Cheerleading
By the mid 1970’s the sport had made a complete transformation from what it started as in the 1890’s. It was no longer a group of people simply leading the crowd, but instead it became a squad of athletes with well rehearsed routines and perfected skills. In 1976 the first official stunt, a liberty, was created and taught at cheer champs nationwide. Then in 1979 the basket toss was invented and taught by the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA), giving cheer teams everywhere an arsenal of stunts to perform. Now, youth teams all the way up to professional teams incorporate intricate stunts and difficult tumbling into their routines and cheers. The added skills to cheerleading have helped the sport gain recognition and respect by other athletes and spectators alike.
A League of Their Own
All Star teams began to emerge during the 1980’s because some athletes just wanted to compete without school or sports league affiliation. In 1987, NCA created an All Star division that separated the unattached teams from those representing schools and gave each group different rules and regulations, allowing those who solely want to compete bypass the sidelines of sports games.
All Star cheerleading is perhaps the fastest growing cheer group, as new teams continue to emerge all over the world. In 2004, the USASF organized the first Worlds All Star competition, solidifying non-affiliated cheerleading as a legitimate force within the cheering community.
Although most people involved in cheerleading believe it should be recognized as a sport, outsiders have not always felt the same way. Cheerleading was first televised in 1978 by the CBS network during the Collegiate Cheerleading Championships and in 1983, ESPN broadcast the National High School Cheerleading Competition nationwide —two huge milestones for the cheer community.
But even with this publicity, cheerleading wasn’t taken seriously by spectators until the late 1990’s when ESPN finally declared cheerleading a sport.
100 years after its conception, the sport of cheerleading continues to grow. People of all ages and from all over the world participate. Although it started out first as a male-only activity, before transitioning to an almost entirely female-based sport, cheerleading is now embraced by both sexes and while most cheerleaders are still women (97%), 50% of college squad members are men.
Cheerleading continues to make its way into the sports world, as well as the world of popular culture. There are television shows and movies that explore the competitive side of cheerleading, exposing the real challenges of the sport in the process. The new-found exposure plus the shift towards more serious athletic endeavors will no doubt bring more people and more fans into to the world of cheerleading
It is becoming harder and harder to deny that cheerleading is a sport worthy of respect and athletic status.