Low Pay, Long Hours, and Mandated Hair Extensions: The True Cost of Being an NBA Dancer

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Lauren Herington was 19 years old when she learned that she’d been selected to be a NBA dancer for the Milwaukee Bucks 2013-14 season. She never thought just a few years later, she would be suing the team for unfair pay.

When Herington joined the Bucks, to say she was excited would have been an understatement; working for the NBA had long been a dream of hers. Within 24 hours of receiving her offer she’d moved to Milwaukee, and shortly after she started attending the cheerleading training camp. But quickly, her dream began to unravel.

It was only after the month-long camp ended that anyone brought up pay to Herington. According to the lawsuit, Herington would be paid $30 for practices; $65 per home game; and $50 for every public appearance. “Appearances could be 30 minutes or four hours, it just depends. Regardless, you were given the flat rate of $50.”

“I was in shock seeing the pay,” she tells PS. At the time, Herington was paying $1,000 a month for her new apartment and a couple hundred for a car note, plus the expenses of living and being in a city — much different from the rural town she grew up in, five hours away. “I immediately thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I going to survive?'” she says.

Her living expenses weren’t the only cost she was concerned about. According to Herington’s lawsuit, the Bucks required that dancers must conform to all image standards set by the coach. This could mean that a woman with short hair would be required to get extensions, or continue to dye or touch up color if that was the look the captain deemed for you.

In addition to hair, dancers were also on the hook for other cosmetic treatments, including nails, tanning, waxing, false eyelashes, and even special cleaning of the uniform, Herinton claims. “My uniform was passed down from seasons prior and was dirty with tanner or makeup and I still had to pay as if it was a new uniform; and then required to have it cleaned,” the former Bucks dancer states. “The same went for pom poms, if they were crushed or even slightly damaged, we had to pay for new ones.”

Ultimately, Herington got two part-time jobs to supplement her income. If she hadn’t, she wouldn’t have been able to afford to be an NBA cheerleader. On top of all that, she was also going to school.

Plus, being on the squad came with intense fitness requirements, including attending approximately 15-20 hours of workout sessions each week, arriving 2 and a half hours before home game start times, and practicing 5-10 hours per week, Herington claimed in her lawsuit. Between working out, practice or games, appearances, school, and her other jobs, Herington’s days might start at 5 a.m. and end at 11 p.m. Oftentimes, she worked 100 hours a week.

Herington says she was fortunate enough to have a strong support system made up of family and new work and school friends who all validated her thoughts on the NBA at the time. “I was exhausted all the time, and so many of my friends would tell me that it was not normal. That the treatment and little pay was not worth it,” the dancer recalls.

The supportive push was enough to convince Herington to leave the team, but it was only a couple years later that she realized how much the conditions affected her confidence, mental health, and income revenue that she took her case to lawyers to see if it was worth pursuing. In 2018, the case settled for $250,000, which was split among roughly 40 dancers (from 2008 to 2013 seasons) to be used as back pay while working as an NBA dancer.

In response to the case settling, the Bucks said in a statement “while we deny the allegations of the claims made in the lawsuit, we have agreed to settle the matter to avoid a lengthy and costly litigation process. We greatly value the contributions of our dancers, and all our employees, and treat them fairly and in compliance with federal and state law.”

So, Has There Been Any Progress?

To date, Herington is the only dancer known to use a lawsuit to get more money from the NBA, but her actions may have served as a wake up call. Now, 10 years later, it seems that the NBA has made some progress on the salary front, but the topic is still pretty taboo.

PS reached out to more than 60 NBA cheerleaders — both current and former — who all expressed interest in commenting, but ultimately declined to speak, in fear of losing their contract.

“I wish I could but unfortunately I’m not at liberty to say.”; “It is such an issue in the NBA but as I’m currently on a team, I cannot discuss this.”; “I am not paid a lot but, it’s always been my dream to work in the NBA and therefore, I cannot speak on this in fear of risking it.” These are just a few of the responses PS received.

A June 2024 post on job search and company review site GlassDoor indicates that the hourly pay for a dancer (specifically on the LA Clippers) ranges from $29 to $47 an hour, including base salary and additional pay — which is right in line with what two of the cheerleaders who agreed to speak anonymously told PS. In a video posted last year, TikToker Alex Hoffman said she was paid $17 an hour to be an NBA cheerleader (for the Chicago Bulls, according to her LinkedIn profile).

How Is the Pay So Low to Begin With?

As with NFL cheerleading, NBA cheerleading is still considered a part-time job, which partially accounts for the pay. Herington and two other anonymous dancers PS spoke to described seeing the following phrase in their contract: “It’s a part-time job with a full-time commitment.”

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, dancers can memorize anywhere between 40 or 50 routines a season, requiring more hours and dedication beyond standard bi-weekly practices. Plus, they’re expected to contribute time off the court participating in community appearances, serving as role models and representations of the team and the league.

“They hold you to such a high standard, but yet that’s not what they pay you. So it is disheartening and they expect you to put in so much time and effort for it,” says Herington.

What’s more, the NBA has the money to pay its cheerleaders a full-time wage. The average NBA team is valued at $4 billion, and the NBA on a whole is valued at $120 billion, per Sportico. In 2023, the highest-paid NBA basketball player made $51.9 million in pretax earnings.

The cheerleaders that we spoke to are unaware of why the pay is so low, but believe it could be due to sexism and a majority of male employees that work in the sports industry who do not see cheerleaders as equal.

Why Advocating as An NBA Cheerleader Can Be So Hard

Shortly after Herington’s lawsuit was settled in 2018, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to do away with the women’s dance team as a whole, and haven’t brought it back since, instead opting for a co-ed break dancing and tumbling team. So in some eyes, the fear to speak out is understandable.

What’s more, Herington says that a lot of dancers have waited their whole lives to achieve NBA level of success and since this is the highest level you can go, they end up “drinking the Kool Aid”— looking past the trials and tribulations to stay.

“I brought up [my frustrations] to a couple of the girls and they would say, ‘You know, this sucks. But what are we supposed to do? We just have to accept it and move on,'” Herington remembers. “You are taught to believe it is a privilege that you are there and you shouldn’t dare make a fuss.”

Many of the dancers join for the exposure, too, booking multiple deals after their time with the NBA, in addition to the potential sisterhood, forming lifelong bonds with many of their colleagues. Ultimately, some see their time spent making too-little money as cheerleaders as an investment that could pay off in the future.

That said, since Herington’s 2017 lawsuit, there have been several attempts to unionize to address pay equity, according to two of the dancers PS spoke to anonymously. (None have been successful — yet). The former dancer, who maintains a relationship with current NBA dancers, believes there has been an improvement, at least on the mental health front though. “They have made it so much more important to work on mental health and make sure the girls feel welcomed to share if they are stressed out about eating and working out,” Heringon says. “I feel like, OK, maybe we did make some changes in the industry, and brought some good things to come.”

Herington still feels excitement and a deep level of pride for being able to achieve her dream of working in the NBA, and although the pay was stifling and the conditions could have been better, the experience didn’t completely deter her from the industry as a whole.

“I know it sounds crazy, but being older and not having to rely on it as my sole income, I am thinking about going back,” Herington says. “I can dance as a hobby now since I have a big-girl job and am established financially. I’m not a young girl needing to support this, I can support myself and dance for fun again.”

Being separated from the industry for over a decade, it’s good to see that the pressure and past experiences don’t outweigh the love of dance and accomplishing the feeling of reaching the top. Hopefully, with more and more awareness, NBA dancers will continue to relish in living out their dreams — only now, with proper compensation.

Natasha Marsh is a freelance writer who writes about fashion, beauty, and lifestyle. Prior to freelancing, she held styling staff positions at The Wall Street Journal, Burberry, Cosmopolitan Magazine, British GQ, and Harper’s Bazaar.

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