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I’m afraid I ruined Sydney Ertl’s day.
When we connected on the phone on a Tuesday, the college senior was on a high. Just a few days before, her University of Minnesota cheerleading squad had placed seventh out of 21 in their division, Group Stunt, at the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) & Universal Dance Association (UDA) College Nationals, a national cheer competition that hosted over 300 universities.
But our conversation wasn’t about that. Instead, I was calling to ask her about her perspective on the state of NFL cheerleaders’ wages — which is, according to many former cheerleaders, bleak. Pro cheerleaders can make as little as $12 an hour for games.
Ertl already knew that the NFL cheerleaders’ salaries were “disappointing.” But as we talked numbers, I could almost feel her spirits, which had been so high as she told me about her team’s recent win, sink.
Our conversation was a harsh reminder that it’s nearly impossible to make a living in the sport she loves. This truth is not just sad. It’s frustrating and baffling to folks like Ertl, who know just how much work goes into cheerleading. While many NFL football players make millions per season, cheerleaders are making pennies — and sometimes even paying for their own pom poms.
How Much Money Do NFL Cheerleaders Make, Exactly?
The NFL is so rich it’s difficult to comprehend just how much money they’re actually worth. The average NFL team valuation is $5.11 billion, with the aggregate value of the whole league sitting at a pretty $163 billion, according to Forbes.
NFL football player salaries also range from comfortably to staggeringly high. In 2021, the highest-paid NFL football player made $87 million in pretax earnings, per Forbes. While non-“star” players earn quite a bit less, the average annual salary of NFL football players in 2023 was still estimated at about $4.5 million for an offensive player, $3.8 million for a defensive player, and $1.9 million for a special teams player, per Spotrac, which claims to be the largest player and team contract resource on the internet.
Against that backdrop, cheerleading salaries are indefensibly low — especially considering that they’re so instrumental to the game experience and team’s brand building, and help put dollars in the NFL’s pockets.
In one oft-quoted article from 2014, The Atlantic writer Olga Khazan stated that cheerleaders for various teams earn anywhere from $75 to $150 per game.
More recently, in 2021, Mhkeeba Pate, a former NFL cheerleader and host of the Pro Cheerleading Podcast, did her own small, informal salary survey, polling cheerleaders through her platform and talking about the results on her channels. She received responses from cheerleaders from nine out of the 24 NFL teams that have cheer squads, including folks in the American Football Conference (AFC) North, AFC East, AFC South, the National Football Conference (NFC) South, NFC East, and NFC West.
In the responses she received, cheerleaders reported earning anywhere from $12 to $20 an hour for games, and from $10 to $16 an hour for practices. How many hours cheerleaders work may vary. Teams rehearse anywhere from two to five nights a week (starting well before football season), for at least three to four hours per night, according to information in various teams’ cheerleader FAQs posted online. They’re typically working full days on home game days (of which there are about 10 per season), and are often asked to show up several hours before kickoff. They’re also responsible for as many as 20 to 50 other appearances per season, which may be paid as well.
Captains and veterans might earn more than other members of the squad, and super popular cheer teams may pay a little more in general. In Pate’s survey, for example, one cheerleader reported making $500 per game, $30 an hour per practice, and $150 an hour for media appearances or events where she represented the team; Pate speculated that this person cheered for a well-known squad.
Meanwhile, last June, Travis Kelce told Vanity Fair that he was “underpaid” … he reportedly makes an annual salary of $14.3 million via his four-year contract with the Chiefs, and has made $65 million in his playing career. (A spokesperson for Kelce didn’t respond to an email request for comment.)
Cheerleaders reported earning anywhere from $12 to $20 an hour for games, and from $10 to $16 an hour for practices.
“When you contrast what the women don’t get paid versus what the men do get paid, it’s shocking,” says Nicole LaVoi, PhD, the director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport and a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota. “The cheerleaders are athletes who are part of the game experience — and they should be paid accordingly.”
Cheerleaders’ salaries not only place them below NFL football players, but also practice squad members, who “earned at least $117,300 per season,” and sometimes even mascots, who “earned anywhere from $25,000 to $65,000 per year (plus benefits),” a document in a 2017 lawsuit against NFL Enterprises notes.
Why Do NFL Cheerleaders Make So Little?
Professional cheerleading is considered a part-time job, which means many NFL cheerleaders rely on a second job to cover their bills, Pate says. Some squads even require their members to have another job or to be in school.
“Teams are pretty up front that the role of being an NFL cheerleader is a part-time job, so that it’s understood that they would have to supplement income with another part-time or full-time job,” Pate says, who had a full-time job in law while cheerleading from 2011 to 2017. “It also is a big bragging point for a lot of cheerleading teams that promote that their cheerleaders are not just professional dancers — that they actually have careers as accountants, engineers, teachers. . . . They don’t squarely acknowledge that a cheerleader could never live off of the wages because it has historically never been the intention to pay them a livable salary.”
Yet, it’s no easy feat to find a second job flexible enough to accommodate the grueling schedules of professional cheerleaders. A team’s “official” practice schedule may already be multiple nights a week, for several hours a night; but squad members may be asked to attend additional rehearsals, and they’re also expected to practice on their own time. Add in travel to and from practice venues and games, and additional appearances — it adds up.
“When you contrast what the women don’t get paid versus what the men do get paid, it’s shocking,” says Nicole LaVoi, PhD
So do the costs required to be on a pro squad. Many professional cheerleaders have free access to a gym, but they may pay for at least a portion of their own uniforms, professional portraits, and travel to practices and games.
Professional attire is required for events where they’re representing their team, Pate adds, noting that there are many “look”-related expenses. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader FAQs have two sections devoted to hair and makeup recommendations, including a suggestion of a specific salon to go to (along with a link to the salon’s pricing).
As New England Patriots cheerleader Taylor Yeley posted on TikTok: “It’s a part-time job, but a full-time commitment. Everyone on the team either has another job or is a student. I have two side jobs — I’m a dance teacher and a fitness instructor.”
But, she adds, “It’s something that I’d probably do for free.”
It’s a sentiment many cheerleaders understand. But the “dream job” effect can keep cheerleaders from feeling able to advocate for themselves.
Give Me a … Living Wage
In the past decade, there have been several lawsuits and attempts to unionize to address pay equity. In some ways, things seem to have gotten better. In 2012, a member of the Buffalo Jills (the former cheer squad for the Buffalo Bills) said she was paid only $105 for 840 hours of work, and had to pay $650 for her uniform. In 2013, a dancer for the Raiderettes said in a lawsuit she was paid less than $5 per hour for her work. Held against those outrageous numbers making $10 to $20 an hour for 12 to 20 hours of work a week can feel like a major improvement. But true progress has been glacial.
That’s, in part, because cheer is a sport of love, not money. “[Cheerleaders] just want to be able to dance — it’s what they waited their whole lives to achieve, and this is the highest level that you can go,” Pate says. “So doing something that could result in your team disappearing is not something you’ll take lightly.”
She isn’t exaggerating. Past attempts at winning fair pay have gone poorly enough to scare off others from attempting similar fights. In 2014, for instance, the Buffalo Jills filed a lawsuit as a path to equity. In response, the Bills completely discontinued the squad two days after the filing. The Jills haven’t made a comeback, and no longer cheer at Bills games.
“People understand there’s a lot of risk involved,” Pate says.
Plus, cheerleading is incredibly competitive. “That messaging of: ‘There are people dying to be in your place?‘ I think that shoves down thoughts of advocating for more,” Pate notes. “You realize that you’re lucky and this is an experience of a lifetime.”
As Dr. LaVoi puts it: “This preys on people’s hopes and dreams.”
But unequal pay has far-reaching and less obvious consequences. The low salary leaves people out, for one. Cheer has had a long history of diversity issues, and while the teams have gotten better at including folks of different races and genders — and the first transgender cheerleader joined an NFL team in 2022 — the pay issue makes it difficult for folks with lower socioeconomic statuses to pursue the professional level.
The fact that cheerleaders are so underpaid also sends a message to young people who love the sport about what their talent and time is worth: not much. “You can always tell who has value when you follow the money,” Dr. LaVoi says.
And why is cheerleading so undervalued? Sexism, plain and simple. “Cheerleading takes a lot of training, practice, and commitment,” Dr. LaVoi says. “But the inherent sexism in it is that when you have people traditionally thinking about cheerleaders, they think: you’re pretty, you’re sexy, you’re hyper-feminine with a certain look and body type.”
Ertl, too, believes that cheerleaders’ low wages have a lot to do with the fact that the sport “has been traditionally female-dominated,” she says. “When I learned how little cheerleaders made, it was hard to grapple with for sure because it really shouldn’t be that way,” Ertl adds.
Still, she has a friend who cheers professionally who’s opened Ertl’s mind to the possibility of pursuing the sport post-college — but, she admits, she hasn’t fully thought it through. If she pursues it, it’ll have to be on the side of another job and something she does “just for fun.”
This is a familiar crossroads many college athletes come to for all kinds of reasons (the stiff competition and weighing other professional pursuits). But while a football player might have to come to terms with the fact they’re not quite talented enough to go pro, even the most qualified cheerleader may have to opt out due to the finances alone.
Pate hopes things will get better — either through some kind of unionization effort or because the NFL (and the sponsoring companies that have a hand in controlling cheerleaders’ salaries) decide to step up and close the gaping pay inequities. She also believes that, in some ways, the “diversification” of the sport might help. After years of sexism, now that more men are becoming pro-cheerleaders, maybe the fight for better pay will finally get some traction within an organization that’s been sued in the past year for gender and race discrimination.
“Looking at the history of why we’ve always historically been paid so low, it was a lot of financial exploitation of women,” Pate says. “Now that the space has changed. … On one hand, it’d be like: wow, now you wanna talk about pay? But I’m hoping just having diverse voices in the room will raise this in a way that will be heard differently.”
Meanwhile, Dr. LaVoi believes change may yet come from another union push. “I think it probably takes one or two women to be fed up enough to just take the initiative, and make it happen,” she says. “It would be a long process — and it would probably be stressful and costly — but it can be done.”
Spokespeople for the NFL, The Raiders, The Cowboys, and The Bills have not responded to POPSUGAR’s requests for comment.
Image Source: Getty / Westend61 michaelquirk Comstock Jasmin Merdan Katsumi Murouchi; Photo illustration by: Becky Jiras