In 1974, Jeff Webb was working for a Dallas company that conducted training camps for cheerleaders. The former University of Oklahoma yell leader enjoyed the job, but believed that the company didn't allow cheerleading to live up to its full potential.
"I decided to start my own organization doing the same thing, but with a different approach," recalls Webb, CEO of Varsity Spirit Fashions and its parent company, Varsity Brands. "I set out to make the activity more athletic and entertaining than it had been."
With $85,000 in money borrowed from friends and family, Webb established a limited partnership in Memphis and spent the next three years running the business from his apartment. By hiring college cheerleaders and coaches, he created a training camp format that emphasized the entertainment and athleticism of cheerleading, and he was soon running camps all over the Midsouth and Midwest.
Faster than you can say, "shish boom ba," Varsity became a cheerleading empire.
But as the sport of cheerleading itself changed, the uniforms did not. Increasingly, participants voiced interest in apparel and footwear that would better reflect the spirit and the function of the sport.
Thus, in 1979, the fashion component of the business was born.
Webb found a designer in one of his instructors - a former head cheerleader at Ohio State with a design degree. The company sent him to the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to round out his skills so that he could design uniforms that fit the vision of what Webb and Varsity thought a modern uniform would look like.
The beginning years had their ups and downs. In one of Varsity's earliest successes, the company found an upstart shoe company to make custom cheerleading shoes. That company later became Nike. But things didn't go as smoothly with the company's original apparel manufacturer, which went bankrupt before it could process Varsity's first orders.
After that experience, Webb says, the company helped another supplier to build a plant, and as a result produced its first uniforms in 1979. "From there we were able to gradually build out both sides of the business. The camps continued to grow and expand and that led to our uniform business growing. Our model worked because we were able to cross market between the two entities."
A third component, national competitions for cheerleaders, soon followed and Varsity began televising events, which created even bigger sales in the apparel business.
In 1979, revenues approximated $30,000 to $40,000. Today, revenue from the apparel side of the business is $140 million, and the business has "seen steady growth every single year," says Webb.
Over the course of the next three decades, Varsity transformed all facets of cheerleading. As the sport became more innovative and athletic, Varsity was challenged to create apparel that would hew to "traditional" cheerleading outfits in appearance while also offering high-performance attributes that would accommodate the increasingly extreme athleticism of the sport.
The company developed fabrics that could showcase the brand and style of the uniform while adding performance, and also worked to advance items such as pompoms, accessories and shoes. "The company launched the first cheerleading-specific shoe, ever, with Nike," says Webb, explaining that cheerleading footwear is unique and very important because of the fact that cheerleaders do many stunts that require climbing on top of each other.
Despite the ever-changing styles in teen fashions, it was easy for Varsity to stay on top of the latest styles because of its built-in source of feedback and trends. With year-round clinics and camps (2008 summer camp attendance topped 300,000), and 10,000 instructors, the company "literally has year-round focus groups," Webb says.
The sport has received another lift as the number of boys cheering also has increased substantially since the early days. Webb points to this as another great opportunity to flesh out its fashions - and its customer base - with complementary but different styles.
Although many people have doubted the viability of the business from its nascence, its focus on innovation, top quality and customer service have led to successes that have made supporters out of skeptics.
"We know what we provide for these kids is more than apparel. It's their school identity; it's their own identity; and we know that's important," Webb shares. "The experience they have with us has to meet all of their positive expectations. The uniform is an emotional part of who they are and how they identify themselves."
Those end users are both the kids who participate in cheerleading and dance and the coaches or faculty advisors responsible for the group at the school level, so the company must be able to market and appeal to both.
"The coaches may make the final decisions, but the kids have a lot to say about it," Webb says.
Cheering on the employees
With more than 10,000 former and current cheerleaders and coaches as instructors, Varsity has a very enthusiastic work environment. That positively trickles down to the 300 or so sales force, 20 design and marketing professionals and 30 production people who work for the company.
Employees also benefit from working with producers closer to home - the company does more than 70 percent of its manufacturing domestically - which cuts down on the headaches that sourcing offshore can sometimes cause.
Manufacturing in the United States is partly driven by necessity. With all of its uniforms custom made to order, and typically on a four-week delivery timetable, offshore options simply aren't in the cards. Also, because the uniforms are very intricate and require high skills to cut and sew, it takes Variety three years to train a contractor. "That doesn't lend itself so much to offshore sourcing," he says.
Cheer around the world
As cheer competitions started appearing on television, the sport began to draw additional attention, both at home and abroad, and Varsity, responding to this heightened awareness, created the first international governing body to help promote and grow cheering around the world. Today 80 countries have member associations.
"[Cheerleading] has traditionally been an American activity but it is beginning to grow now internationally," Webb says. "From Colombia, where they have 30,000 cheerleaders to Pakistan, where they have two to three teams. There's also a lot of interest in China right now and some in Europe. But it's just the beginning of what's to come."
"S*U*C*C*E*S*S, that's the way you spell success." That's one cheer Webb is obviously familiar with.
Keith Loria is a free-lance writer from New York who specializes in business and entertainment writing.
Webb's favorite is "Hotty Toddy," used at The University of Mississippi.
"Bring It On"
"The movie was a blessing and a curse. It made the general public more aware of the dedication and passion of the kids who are participating," Webb says. "But a curse in that some of the imagery is not reflective of some of the values and character that most people have."
Cheerleading at College Level
In most pro sports, the most talent is found at the professional level, but Webb says it's just the opposite with cheerleading.
Outfitting a Cheerleader
A typical cheerleading wardrobe for a female college cheerleader includes two to three different tops, two to three different skirts, tights, shoes, socks, pompoms, warm-ups for travel and practice apparel consisting of knit shorts and a branded T-shirt. The wardrobe for the boys is similar, minus the skirts and tights.