When Jeff Webb dreamt up exciting new additions to cheerleading back in 1974, it proved to be the catalyst for a company that would change the face of the sport. “He really came up with adding the partner stunts and athletic skills in cheerleading, the stuff you see today on ESPN,” says Bill Seely, the new president of Varsity Spirit. “That’s really the innovation he brought to the industry. He went to the owner of the National Cheerleaders Association at the time and brought those concepts to him, but he wasn’t interested.
Webb started working for the National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) right out of college on the camp side of the business. When the owner didn’t bite on his new ideas, he planned to head back to law school. However, several instructors at the NCA saw promise in his ideas, so they branched off to create Universal Cheerleaders Association.
UCA’s first camp, in 1974, pulled in 5,000 kids. “Now, we’re up to 330,000 kids,” says Seely. “We’ve got thousands of camps. We’re the largest camp company of any kind in the world. We have representation all across the U.S., over in Europe, and Japan. That helped us to create the international governing body for cheerleading, which got recognition from the Olympics.
What makes Varsity Spirit so successful is that it views itself as more than just a company in its field. Rather, as the leading business in the cheer industry, Varsity Spirit takes it upon itself to be an ambassador for the sport and help partner organizations. “We don’t view ourselves as just servicing a market, we care about the kids and the people who attend our events and our camps,” says Seely. In turn, that positive attitude extends to the sport of cheerleading, which Seely sees as a community building tool. “Cheerleaders right now, their primary role is building school spirit, really engaging the student body, and creating the environment that students will remember for a long time. This is a group that gets up in front of the crowd, engages them, and gets them going. They’re doing at least 20 hours of service-oriented activities for the schools. Hanging banners, pep rallies, football, basketball games, and so much more.”
Varsity Spirit also provided guidelines for the sport as it grew bigger. When injuries became more common after the introduction of more dangerous stunts and routines, Varsity created safety regulations to ensure that participants weren’t as exposed. It also started expanding it’s coaching and training services to ensure the best possible education for both instructors and other participants.
During the holiday season, the halls of Varsity Spirits office are decked out with Christmas decorations.
One factor for the positive environment might be that almost every employee at Varsity is a former cheerleader, or has worked in the sport in some capacity. That helps the company reach the scope it wants to attain, with influence in almost every capacity of the industry. Some employees are sent out as instructors for camps, while others help with Varsity’s philanthropic outreach. One section is dedicated to maintaining relationships with colleges and universities so Varsity can better help out with national competitions and stay more involved at ground level with teams around the country.
Another factor might be the positive attitude that Seely puts forth on a daily basis. As someone who grew up with the sport, he has a personal stake in watching it grow and helping it become the best it can be. He began his career at Varsity in 1989 while a sports management major at George Mason University in Washington, D.C. At that time, there were plenty of options for a career. However, two classmates convinced him to try cheerleading, and from there, his path was set. “The school required an internship for credits, so I had the choice between a few companies: the Boston Celtics, Nike, and Varsity Spirit. Nike was huge, and I loved the Celtics, but I thought about what I’d be doing and the path forward from there, and I wasn’t sure that was something I’d want to do on a regular basis. At the time, Varsity was really small, and I knew I’d be able to interact with the founder and senior level executives.” Seely moved to Memphis to work with Varsity. As the internship wound to a close, he was prepared to jump back into the job hunt. However, Greg Webb, the founder’s brother, told Seely that he wouldn’t need a resume, and offered him a full-time job. From every step along the way from camp instructor to president, Seely has fully embraced the work he’s doing. “I love the company, love the culture, the whole family-oriented, customer-focused vibe with an eye on making more of a positive impact on the community through what we do. That’s what drew me here in the first place.”
Going forward, Varsity plans to continue its service to the greater cheer community. A big development is a new venture with Disney, with whom Varsity has been collaborating for around 25 years. “They’re getting ready to build a whole new facility for us. It’s the first building of its kind being built specifically for cheerleading and dance.” On another front, Varsity is helping to pioneer a new sporting offshoot of cheerleading called Stunt. Teams go head-to-head in four quarters of competing skill sequences while coaches attempt to outmaneuver each other. It provides yet another competition for those with cheerleading backgrounds, and is yet another example of how Varsity Spirit can grow the sport of cheerleading. With the growth it’s presided over since the 70’s, you’d be hard pressed to find a better cheer ambassador than Varsity Spirit.
Click on the images below for more information. Photos by Larry Kuzniewski