Is Cheer a Sport?

Think cheerleader and you think blonde, popular mean girl, wandering the locker-clad halls of a US high school. Or you think Cheer, the 2020 Netflix series that showcased the lives of elite college athletes. 

The latter shot to fame but the realities of cheerleading in the UK are still widely misunderstood. Cheerleading is still seen as regulated to the sidelines, there to cheer on the “real” athletes, usually synonymous with men. Saying that cheer is a sport perplexes because how can it be, when cheerleaders are only there to support men? 

Both competitive university cheer and All-Star cheer evades public knowledge because few know that it actually exists. 70 universities in the UK offer cheerleading as a sport, and these compete at a national level in multiple different competitions. This includes the York Hornets Cheerleading Club, which contains six cheer teams and three dance teams across the sport. 

All-Star cheer, that is cheerleading that is at private clubs, has its own competitions, nationally and internationally. UK teams regularly compete at these and succeed, with Surrey-based Unity AllStars Black winning International Level 7 non-tumbling. For non-cheerleaders, that’s the highest cheer level there is. 

Team England competes at the International Cheer Union Worlds, and in 2023 came 7th in the world in one division. Cheerleading isn’t just restricted to the US anymore, but is a global sport. 

In 2021, the Olympic Committee recognised cheerleading as a sport, with the goal to get it to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. 

So why, despite its success, is it but is now a worldwide sport.  so hard to recognise cheer as a sport? 

Cheer, despite its history, has overwhelmingly been seen in the past as a women’s sport. While it started at Princeton in the USA as a male-dominated discipline serving to control and to hype up the crowds at sports games, in WW2 it became female dominated and has remained that way since. 

As a sport, cheerleading requires strength, flexibility, excellent teamwork and, maybe most importantly, resilience and the ability to keep trying skills. When these skills are performed, the difficulty required, as well as the athleticism that goes into cheer, is minimised, particularly when they are performed by women. 

Speaking to Hornets President Tilly Finch, she comments on the difficulty of All Star cheer, saying: 

“All Star cheer is very wholesome and it’a a lot more sessions, so I would train, my team would have two or three training sessions a week. One of them was purely conditioning so just getting that fitness level up and then one of them was a tumbling session so we used to have separate sessions for our tumbling and that was mandatory for our team, and then we would have stunting sessions, and that would be- I would have to have a second dinner when I got home because I was so tired from it. The intensity of All Star training is just so much higher than uni training.” 

Her experience on All Star, and cheer as whole, is remarkably positive, compared to the stereotypes of cheer as a whole. Her experience of telling people that she is a cheerleader is that people don’t associate her personality with cheer – rather, they expect cheerleaders to be “very preppy and like woohoo!”. This isn’t the personality that most people associate with athleticism – but it might be what they associate with more feminine thoughts. 

The misconceptions that surround what cheer is isn’t just regulated to cheer but rather concerns all women’s sports and sports that are perceived as “feminine”. 

Women athletes are typically paid less than male athletes, their sports are covered up to 20 times less than mens, and sports coverage is dominated by male sports. 

This is changing – 2023 saw the biggest FIFA Women’s World Cup, breaking even for the first time by bringing in $570 million, and 62% of England football fans now supporting the Lionesses. 

The rise of other women’s sports is important but does not change the perception of sports typically seen as feminine or for women. Cheer, despite its roots, remains strongly in this category, with the required athleticism being ignored. 

Tilly comments that part of the reason why it’s so hard for many to accept that cheer is difficult is due to the performance aspect of it, as well as the certain look that is associated with cheer. Cheer, like every other sport, has an associated uniform, which usually includes heavier makeup and the big cheer bow. 

Tilly says that “But other people, they think well, what other sport would you do that for? And it’s that, it’s why you feel the need to do that, surely it’s about looking pretty then. And it’s like no, it’s so the stage lights don’t wash you out.”

The performance aspect, the need to look a certain way while doing it (cheer unfortunately isn’t exempt from issues about what a cheer body should look like), creates a misconception that cheerleading is (a) easy and (b) just for looks. 

This performance requires big facials and a strong dance aspect – which goes against traditionally masculine ideas of sport, of values of strength and a lack of emotion. 

The stereotypes, as with anything in a societal view of gender, mean men are not exempt from it. Men that participate in cheer are often seen as emasculated and stereotyped as gay, no matter what their sexuality may be. Cheer is feminised, seen as attention seeking and bitchy, traits often given to gay men and confident women. 

Ideas of how to perform gender still seep into the space of sports, and ideas of what sports are and aren’t are subsequently impacted. 

Maybe it’s the struggle to have cheer accepted as more than cheering other athletes on that furthers ideas of being ‘bitchy’ and unwelcoming, a performance but not a showcase of athleticism. Cheer is seen as attention-seeking, and in a society where women’s sports are routinely ignored, this has manifested itself into being the trademark of the mean girls in western media. Tilly comments that people assume she is ‘very gossipy and lives of the drama’ when she says she’s a cheerleader, despite her experience of cheer being anything but this.

Her experience of competitions also may surprise some – despite the connotations, her experience has been largely positive, commenting on how ‘it’s actually very friendly and encouraging… everybody’s so nice to everyone and it’s such a nice vibe’. Cheerleaders tend to literally and metaphorically lift each other up, but media stereotypes mask this. 

Sport, much like other areas of society and culture, both continue to reproduce and reflect the hierarchies within society. Typically masculine values, like toughness, power, strength and competitiveness exist within sports and can continue to reproduce through sports, in participants and spectators. 

Cheer being recognised as a sport aims to further the sport itself but it also helps to redefine what we see as athleticism and worthy of being called a sport. ‘Looking pretty’ while performing or playing a sport shouldn’t prevent it from being considered anything else, especially not one that relies on close teamwork, insane levels of trust and highly skilled technique, not to mention the strength needed.

 Values like these, that prioritise social bonds and skill, shouldn’t be put to the sidelines. And neither should cheer.