As many times as Jade has been hit in the face during her four years as a cheerleader, she has only cried once: the time her lip got busted open.
“I got blood on my back spot’s white shirt,” she recalls, talking about a teammate who supports and catches “flyers” like Jade during cheer stunts.

Jade is a child, making that transition from elementary school into seventh grade. But with her blue-framed glasses, thoughtful demeanor and defined muscles, she comes across as older.
 
She explains that what we just watched at practice at Five Star Gymnastics and Cheerleading in Erlanger is pretty common.

Groups of four cheerleaders were throwing a fifth one about 15 feet in the air, where she executed a split-like kick and snapped her leg back down to complete two full rotations before being caught. One didn’t complete the second rotation. Her head jerked back against her teammate’s chest as she landed.

There were tears when she removed her hands from her face to look at her coach, but she nodded that she was OK. A minute later, she was back at it.
 
Jade’s team is part of the explosive growth in “all-star” cheerleading: a high-energy combination of gymnastics, acrobatic stunts and dance. Unlike recreational or school-based squads, all-star cheer teams focus on competing against others at events that can draw thousands of cheerleaders, parents and spectators.
 
Girls as young as age 3 can enroll in all-star cheerleading.
 
Some call it a sport, others say it’s an “activity” or “program.” By any name, competitive cheerleading has jumped into the ranks of big business. By some estimates it’s now a $2 billion annual industry in the U.S.
 
Competitions drew almost 10,000 people to the Duke Energy Center and the Northern Kentucky Convention Center last year alone.
 
But as coaches strive to retain the winning reputation that parents pay for, pressure builds on the youngsters — as it does on those enrolled in other club sports. The Florence-based Spirit of Kentucky All Star cheerleaders have a poem entitled “I Am A Spirit of Kentucky Cheerleader” on their web site. Here’s how it ends:
 
I am a Spirit of Kentucky Cheerleader
I will work hard to make my team proud
Because perfection is acceptable, excellence tolerated
But failure is not allowed!
 
Everyone has to blink away tears at practice occasionally, Jade affirms, but getting hurt isn’t the worst part of cheerleading. The worst, she says, is when you fall at a competition and let your team down.
 
As Jade explains, “You have to take criticism. If I don’t land something, I try to get it the next time.”

 

Not on the Sidelines

At Midwest Cheer Elite in West Chester, a group of girls under age 14 is launching across spring floors into almost frightening-looking elite tumbling passes, then stepping aside to giggle with friends and retie ribbons.
 
Shelley Couch is watching the all-star practice from the lobby. When people find out that her 11- and 9-year-old daughters are cheerleaders, their response is often to ask them to “do a cheer.”
 
That’s when her kids have to tell them that they don’t quite get it.
 
All-star cheerleaders spend all year perfecting one fast-paced two-and-a-half-minute routine set to music. There is one cheer in the routine, but it’s usually just a few sentences long, and compared to the rest of it — whizzing within inches of team members in synchronized jumps and gymnastics and holding one another in the air in complex pyramids — the cheer is almost a chance to catch their breaths. Needless to say, it’s not the cheerleading of 20 years ago — or even ten years ago.
 
Midwest boasts more than 300 all-star cheerleaders from age 3 to 18, which makes it the biggest all-star gym in the Cincinnati area. It opened in 2003 and operates out of a 23,400 square-foot facility.
 
Aaron Flaker, co-founder and -owner of Jambrands, a Louisville-based company that hosts 175 cheer and dance events each year, sums up the industry trend: “The last 10 years have been crazy growth, overall.” Jambrands started out in 1995, hosting just one competition that year.
Varsity Brands Inc., a leading provider of cheerleading camps, clinics, uniforms and competitions nationwide, created its first all-star division in 1993 for 11 teams; today, 2,000 teams compete.
 
Just about any entrepreneur can set up a privately owned gym or all-star cheerleading program, as many have. There are at least nine all-star programs based in the Cincinnati area, and about 1,000 kids participate locally each year, not including all-star dancers or competitive cheerleaders on school-based squads.
 
Melanie Berry, vice president of special events for Varsity, confirmed that the Greater Cincinnati/Lexington/Columbus area “has some incredible programs.”
 
“Talent level and popularity wise, the Cincinnati market is right there at the top of the pyramid,” she says.
 


Center of Attention


What sets cheerleading apart from the multitude of competitive sports available to kids is the element of an almost theatric performance. Cheer girls perform under lights. They wear layers of makeup, glitter and hairspray. They yell to the crowd, flip their ponytails and wink at judges. At increasingly sophisticated competitions, the music booms at concert volumes, and kids may run onto the stage accompanied by smoke or strobe lights.
 
“Most females go through that at some point in their lives where they want to be on the stage and be that young, pretty female, and it’s also been an outlet for many males,” Flaker says.
 
The Jamfest “Live!” competition, which held an event in Cincinnati in January, features a red carpet, “paparazzi” who take kids’ pictures as they walk in, and a “leader lounge” with plush couches and a DJ. ShowTyme Cheer & Dance, which held a competition at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center in January, also specializes in “production style” competitions.
 
“It’s just fun,” says Sarah Schneider of Premier Athletics, which is owned by Varsity and owns 20 gyms in eight states, including Cincinnati Elite All-Stars in Park Hills. “The competitions you go to are like Hollywood.”
 
It’s easy to get caught up in the pageantry, watching the tiny girls in colorful uniforms as they fly through the air and dare you not to smile back. But be warned: this is no small commitment — physically or fiscally.



You Pay To Play

 
Parents usually pay between $2,000 and $3,000 in annual tuition and competition fees for an all-star program. The cost of uniforms — including makeup, hair ribbons, shoes, and more — can easily add several hundred dollars to the annual cost.
 
Most all-star squads attend 8 to ten competitions each year. Although many of the events are local or just a few hours away, most teams take at least one big trip each year, often cities such as Atlanta or Orlando, Fla. Parents pay for their own travel, lodging and often admission charges if they attend the competitions, which can last an entire weekend.
 
Families regularly spend hours at fundraisers, booster club meetings and parties. Private lessons that cost upwards of $25 for half an hour are common, and extra programs like Midwest’s “Flex Zone” flexibility class are popular as well.
 
There’s also plenty of merchandising to draw out the wallets at competitions; for example, you probably won’t escape a Jambrands event without some version of “Jammy,” the company’s mascot. Gyms often have team stores, which offer everything from luggage to jewelry, and they rent out space and equipment for parties and events.



An Athletic Edge

 
Parents of children who compete in club sports — gymnastics, hockey, soccer, swimming and tennis, among others — are also quite familiar with high expenses, long-distance trips to tournaments and significant time commitments.
 
Cheerleading club parents share with those hockey moms and soccer dads many of the same motivations: helping their kids build character and make friends, the perceived safety of private facilities and, yes, the status of elite competition.
 
Todd Fey of Five Star cites college as the No. 1 reason why parents choose a more competitive version of cheerleading. It’s not uncommon for college coaches to scout at the all-star competitions Five Star attends, he says.
 
Schneider echoes that many kids come to Premier Athletics when they decide they want to try out for a college squad. Stunts and pyramids are not permitted at high school athletic events in Ohio (they are still permitted in Kenucky, with specific guidelines), but such stunts are common on the college level.
 
“Parents know that their kids will get the correct training, and they wouldn’t get that expertise at a school or rec league. And they know if they get their child in young they will excel when they’re older and be ahead of the game,” she says.
 
Flaker confirms that Jamfest has added divisions for increasingly younger kids over the years to meet market demand. Both Jamfest and Varsity all-star competitions have divisions for squads with participants under age 5, and most local all-star gyms have competitive squads in that age group with cheerleaders as young as 3 years.
 
“My daughter is actually 4 and she’s on our competitive team,” Fey says. “It is tough because you’re trying to teach four- and five-year-olds how to memorize routines. But it’s not to the point where people are jumping down throats. They all get medals.”
 
Couch says she chose to start her kids in as all-stars in kindergarten after watching her niece grow up in a similar cheerleading program. The girl was always too busy to get in trouble and wasn’t out partying like other kids, Couch says.
 
Plus, she adds, to get to the highest level you almost have to get started that young. Fey would agree: Gyms can be “cliquey,” he observes, and if you start young, you’re more likely to make teams as you move up.
 
Couch admits that because her daughters started cheerleading so early, they’ve had little experience with other sports or extracurricular activities. The all-star regimen often means only about a month off between end-of-the-year team parties and prepping for tryouts for the upcoming season.
 
 But she always gives them the option to quit.
 
“I tell my girls every year they don’t have to do it,” she says. “But they always do.”
 
Asked how her kids handled competing at such a young age, she laughs. Her youngest used to cry when she didn’t win, she notes. “My kids are driven in everything they do.”



Competitive Kids

 
The image of a 5-year-old girl crying because her cheerleading squad didn’t come in first place may still startle a few people, but it’s far from uncommon.
 
These competitive children are the product of a club sports model that began to emerge around 30 years ago, says Ronald Quinn, an associate professor in the Department of Sport Studies at Xavier University.
 
Before the 1970s and ’80s, youth sports were largely unregulated. Since then, especially with the growth in two-income and single-parent families, kids’ lives have become more structured with organized activities outside the home. Meanwhile, spending on sports marketing shot up, increasing access to a growing number of sports on TV and bringing a new level of seriousness to the games. All these factors have resulted in parents enrolling kids in expensive, competitive programs at increasingly younger ages.
 
Quinn cautions that specializing in a sport too early may not allow kids to discover what they’re really good at, and it isn’t a good indicator of future success.
 
Gymnastics may be an exception, he adds, but youngsters don’t usually need to specialize in team sports until age 14 or 15.
When coaches and parents are as financially, mentally and even socially invested as they have become in today’s club sport system, the physical and psychological demands grow on the young ones.
 
“The coaches’ livelihoods are at stake, so they have to tell the kids what to do and when to do it. The child never gets to choose for themselves,” Quinn explains. “No wonder the child injury rate continues to rise. It used to be that when you got tired of something, you stopped. Now, an adult says, ‘You have to go 20 more minutes.’”
 
The answer isn’t to bail out as soon as something gets a little challenging, but parents should be very aware of their child’s physical and emotional maturity level, Quinn says.
 
Under too much pressure, children who aren’t truly elite will burn out and quit long before college scholarship dreams can be entertained, regardless of the sport. Those who stick with it, hoping for a payoff in college, are likely to be disappointed. According to a March 2008 New York Times article, NCAA institutions gave athletic scholarships in 2003-4 to only about 2 percent of the 6.4 million athletes playing those sports in high school four years earlier.
 
Northern Kentucky University and the University of Cincinnati both offer partial scholarships to their competitive cheerleading squads, but it’s unlikely that those would repay the cost of growing up in an all-star cheerleading program that costs $4,000 a year.
 
Quinn suggests that parents keep lifelong development in perspective when choosing any athletic program for their kids. There’s a whole generation that has grown up in a club sports structure, he says, but since it hasn’t been researched, the physical effects on development have yet to be seen.
 
But none of this is bothering Jade, who loves stunting and working on her “full,” a gymnastics move in which the body completes a flip and a 360 degree spin at the same time. She cheers for her middle school as well as her all-star team, and since football season started, she’s been cheering six days a week.