It's not just the players and coaches of the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles who will be representing their teams this Sunday at the 2018 Super Bowl.
Cheerleaders for the Patriots and Eagles have also made the journey out to Minneapolis and will be performing inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday. Who are these women? And how much money do NFL cheerleaders make? Why have some cheerleaders been filing lawsuits against their teams? How do you even become a pro cheerleader in the NFL or NBA first place?
There's probably a lot that sports fans don't know about the lives and careers of professional cheerleaders. Here are some of the surprising aspects of being a cheerleader—and why many of the stereotypes and assumptions about cheerleaders are dead wrong.
Pro cheerleading is super strict and demanding.
An NFL cheerleader's schedule varies, but most can expect to work eight hours per week for rehearsals (plus additional practice time for rookies) and a full eight-hour day at the stadium for home games on Sundays (Or sometimes Monday nights, or even on holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas). Regular special appearances at community outreach, charity, and corporate events are required as well.
"I really felt like I had two full-time jobs during the season," said Tiffany Monroe, a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader from 2006 to 2014, who now works as a physical education teacher in Somers Point, N.J. "And our season never really ended. We got a little bit of a break in February."
One former NBA cheerleader said she often worked 30 to 40 hours per week, once rehearsals, workouts, games, and special appearances were added up. Many cheerleaders are not paid by the hour either, but with a set fee for each game or appearance, and many complain about not being compensated at all for practices or travel time.
Former NFL cheerleaders claim that members of the squad were sometimes benched for gaining weight during the season. They could also be fined for wearing the wrong outfit to practices. Other rules might include being forbidden to drink, smoke, curse, or chew gum in public, and bans on hanging out or dating NFL players. One team even required that all cheerleaders have straight hair.
It's not supposed to be a full-time job.
Despite the demands of cheerleading, NFL teams stress that it is not a full-time job. In fact, cheerleaders are often required to have other jobs or be students in college. ("Yes, a mother is considered a full-time job!" one team notes in its list of cheerleader requirements.)
The pay is minimal.
NFL teams are super secretive about how much cheerleaders get paid. We reached out to the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, and several other teams, and all either didn't respond or refused to give any details about cheerleader wages.
If a team states anything publicly about the issue, it's generally something vague and unhelpful like what's on the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders site: "There is a pay schedule for rehearsals, home football games, promo appearances & shows."
Their reluctance to discuss the issue could be because they're scared of being sued. In recent years, a number of lawsuits have been filed alleging that teams broke the law by paying sub-minimum-wages to cheerleaders. (The results of these suits have varied, with one NFL team agreeing to a $1.25 million settlement with former cheerleaders, one claim thrown out of court, and one team, the Buffalo Bills, dropping its cheerleaders entirely.)
Or it could be that teams are keeping quiet about cheerleader pay because the wages are so embarrassingly low.
A lawsuit filed on the behalf of one former San Francisco 49ers cheerleader said that she earned a total of $1,250 per season, which worked out to roughly $2.75 per hour. One anonymous NFL cheerleader wrote in Cosmopolitan that she was paid $3,000 during the 2006 season, but after adding up non-reimbursed expenses for things like makeup and stylist appointments, she netted only $300.
In the aftermath of multiple lawsuits and tons of bad PR, NFL teams seem to be paying cheerleaders better lately, and yes, that includes payment for most practices and appearances. Nowadays, NFL cheerleaders earn somewhere between $75 to $150 per game, and might make as much as $50 an hour for special corporate appearances. San Diego Chargers cheerleaders had been getting paid a flat $75 per game, but a California law that went into effect in 2016 mandated that they be paid for all their work at least at the state minimum wage of $10 per hour.
Generally speaking, it is unusual for professional cheerleaders to earn more than a few thousand dollars per season, and a typical NFL cheerleader probably averages around $10 or less per hour over the course of a season. Meanwhile, the average NFL player's annual salary is over $2 million, according to Forbes, and the NFL generates about $14 billion in revenues per year lately, up from $8 billion in 2010.
Cheerleaders even have to pay to audition.
Every year, hundreds of women try out with the hopes of being selected as one of the two or three dozen selected as cheerleaders for an NFL team. The would-be cheerleaders must first cough up some cash to be considered for the gig. To audition for the Atlanta Falcons' cheerleading squad, for example, there is a $35 fee—cash or money order only (no checks). The Indianapolis Colts charge $75 to each woman auditioning.
There are other costs related to auditions too, including hair, makeup, apparel, and tanning appointments. To increase the odds of making the team, applicants are encouraged to sign up for audition prep classes that cost roughly $25 to $75. Highlights of these prep classes might be posted online for fans to enjoy.
The audition process can take up to a full week, meaning that applicants might have to miss school or work before even making the team. The Miami Dolphins Cheerleaders 2018 auditions, for example, stretch from April 16 to 22, and include interviews, photo shoots, choreography rehearsals, and a final audition open to the public inside Hard Rock Stadium.
They don't do it for the money.
Most pro cheerleaders say that their teams provide ample warning that the commitment required is extreme, and that the pay might be less than waitressing or an entry-level retail job. So why are so many eager to be cheerleaders anyway?
"I didn't do it for the money, and I don't think anybody does," said Monroe, the former Eagles cheerleader, noting that her compensation was "fair" because she never considered it a full-time job. "It's more about doing it for the love of dance, or the love of football or maybe modeling."
In addition to the glamor and excitement of performing in front of tens of thousands of people, cheerleading brings with it opportunities for travel—perhaps to the Super Bowl, or exotic beach locations for photo shoots, or to visit the troops in the Middle East. Among the other benefits of cheerleading, at the pro and amateur levels alike, are improved discipline and health, plus the development of skills like leadership, time management, and public speaking.
Getting to work and build relationships with other ambitious, top-notch cheerleaders is another perk. "It's not the stereotype of the dumb blonde cheerleader," said Monroe. "They're smart, they're intelligent, they're driven, motivated women. I've met so many women that I'm still friends with to this day."
They pursue fascinating careers outside cheerleading.
Cheerleaders for the Super Bowl-contending Patriots and Eagles include nurses, teachers, accountants, physician assistants, physical therapists, engineers, and a Harvard grad student. One member of this year's Eagles squad is even a town councilwoman in New Jersey.
Darlene Cavalier, a former NBA cheerleader who runs the site ScienceCheerleader.com, reported that a total of 30 Super Bowl cheerleaders—15 apiece for the Patriots and Eagles—are pursuing college majors or already working jobs in STEM (science, tech, engineering, math). "Their day jobs highlight the remarkable talent and intelligence of cheerleaders" in the NFL and NBA, Cavalier said.