BUSINESS & INNOVATION

Varsity Spirit Scores By Diversifying Cheer Brand

Sloan Wallis, a former cheerleader at Saltillo High School in Mississippi, loved attending Universal Cheerleaders Association Camps during the summer. They gave her people to look up to and  goals to strive for.

“I had never cheered before attending my first camp, so that was my first experience as to what being a cheerleader looked like,” she said. “The staff at camp really gave me the confidence I needed for not only cheerleading but other aspects of life.”

Varsity Spirit Corporation originated in 1948 and has continued to grow. The company was founded by Jeff Webb, who decided to create UCA while working as a summer instructor for the National Cheerleaders Association in 1974.

Webb wanted to start a cheerleader association that combined high energy entertainment and school leadership. Varsity Spirit began by offering cheer camps and safety education for high school and college students. Webb added uniform and sports equipment in 1979. Varsity Fashions now makes more than a million custom uniforms annually. 

The company, headquartered in Memphis with Webb as chairman, was rebranded as Varsity Brands in 2001 after mergers. Varsity Brands Incorporation is made up of three companies: Varsity Spirit, Herff Jones, and BSN Sports. 

Varsity Spirit sells uniforms, hosts competitions and runs instructional cheerleader and dance camps. Herff Jones is a provider of graduation and education products, such as class rings, jewelry, caps and gowns, and yearbooks. BSN Sports is a distributor of sports uniforms and equipment.

Senior Vice President Becky Gennings said Varsity Spirit has grown from an instructional summer camp company to a worldwide brand. “It has also shifted towards becoming a philanthropist company by teaming up with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The Sparkle Effect,” she said. “Varsity will continue to grow in the upcoming years because it has diversified to include all aspects of school, not only cheerleading and dance, but also yearbooks, class rings, graduation and sporting equipment. Band has also just recently fallen under the Varsity umbrella.”

For the past 35 years, Varsity Spirit has partnered with ESPN to broadcast their cheerleading competitions around the world. Webb forged the partnership and created the National Cheerleading Championships in Orlando, Florida, introducing a new style of cheerleading that emphasized athleticism and entertainment.

As of 2015, three of Varsity Spirit’s national championships were televised on ESPN Networks, including the National High School Cheerleading Championship, the National College Cheerleading and Dance Team Championship and the National Dance Team Championship. Varsity Spirit even has its own media platform, Varsity TV, that generates thousands of hours of original content annually.

Varsity Spirit camps train around 330,000 cheerleaders from colleges, high schools, middle school, and all-star programs at around 5,000 camp sessions in the United States each summer. The camps last around three to four days, running from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. The curriculum includes safety training, how to lead a crowd in many different game situations, new cheers, stunts, and routines.

Varsity Spirit puts on over 600 cheerleading competitions across the country. The company has partnered with Disney for around 25 years and has nearly 90,000 athletes at seven of the Varsity Spirit events at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

In 2011, Varsity Spirit started “Team Up for St. Jude,” a fundraising campaign to support the children’s research hospital. Each summer, Varsity Spirit asks every cheerleader or dancer attending a Varsity Spirit camp to send fundraising letters to friends and family around the country asking for St. Jude donations. 

In the fall, the fundraising continues at Team Up for St. Jude Spirited by Varsity Game Day events. Cheerleaders and dancers invite their student bodies, teachers and communities to join in fundraising by hosting a spirit week. Cheerleaders and dancers have already raised millions for the organization this year.

Kylie Gray, a high school cheerleader at North Delta School, a private, nondenominational Christian school in Batesville, said she did not realize the importance of St. Jude before attending a Varsity Camp. “Camp really opened my eyes to the importance of fundraising for St. Jude,” she said. “Since then, in my school, we have organized different fundraising events to benefit St. Jude. It also opened my eyes to how blessed my friends and I are to have the ability to be able to compete in different sporting activities.”

Annie Shy at a competition with a Sparkle cheerleader. Photo by Ginger Stephens.

Varsity Spirit also works with The Sparkle Effect, a nonprofit organization that creates programs for school-based cheer and dance teams that bring together students with and without disabilities. The Sparkle Effect has generated over 200 teams in 30 states that have directly involved over 10,000 students. The Sparkle Effect teams showcase a public symbol of acceptance. The Sparkle Effect wants to change school’s culture to one that values diversity and kindness.

Annie Shy, a former cheerleader at Ocean Springs High School in Mississippi, worked with The Sparkle Effect by partnering with her high school and Varsity. “As a camper, I thought the staff (Varsity) was very elite and perfect,” she said. “They seemed like they never messed up, and I really looked up to them a lot. 

“I worked with The Sparkle Effect throughout the years in high school, and it taught me a lot. I spent three years as a mentor, and I really saw the possibilities that the Sparkle cheerleaders could achieve.”

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