Sports

NFL cheerleaders admit their work ‘doesn’t pay the bills’ but love it

While a Raiders cheerleader is suing team over low pay, Broncos and Seahawks dancers call it ‘best part-time job’

Denver Broncos cheerleader Tara Battiato leads the squad onto the field.
AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

The rhinestones were bedazzling at Virginia Mason Athletic Center outside Seattle, and music was booming inside Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver on Tuesday evening.

Yes, the spectacle of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks’ presence in the New York–New Jersey area began when the teams arrived Sunday for Super Bowl XLVIII, but the cheerleading squads were still back home preparing for the big game’s sideline entertainment.

It’s a glitzy and glamorous position that cheerleaders say they love as an outlet for dancing, community outreach, travel and other perks. But pay isn’t necessarily one of them.

Sea Gal Geraldine on a recent trip with the squad in Hong Kong.
Sea Gal Geraldine on a recent trip with the squad in Hong Kong.
Courtesy photo

“We always talk about it as the best part-time job ever. I’d probably do it for free because of the opportunities it brings,” said Geraldine, a “Sea Gal” who, in addition to cheerleading, is pursuing a business management degree and working for a certified public accountant (the Seahawks do not release the last names of cheerleaders due to security concerns). “I started off doing it purely for fun, but I realized it gave me an opportunity to have amazing experiences and meet incredible people. As they say, to network is to increase your net worth.”

While the Broncos and Seahawks — and most other cheer squads — won’t discuss pay, the Oakland Raiders are facing a lawsuit by one of their cheerleaders claiming the team violates California labor laws by paying only $125 per game and nothing for outside appearances, while fining cheerleaders for minor wardrobe violations in practice or failing to attend required charity events.

“Our team is very well compensated,” said Teresa Shear, director of the Broncos cheerleaders. “I’m not going to talk about what they’re paid.”

Many NFL cheerleaders teach dance or are professional choreographers, while others are still students or work in other professional careers. Two of the Broncos cheerleaders are moms; another will begin medical school in the fall. The Sea Gals include athletic trainers, Amazon and Nordstrom employees, an Air Force lieutenant and a lawyer.

“Being a cheerleader is kind of a hobby,” said Ashley Gehrke, who went to Super Bowl XXXII in 1998 with the Broncos and is now principal of Sand Creek Elementary, south of Denver. “You do it for the love of being on the field and the dance. I was a dancer all my life. It was just a wonderful outlet to be able to dance and do charity events.”

As part of their community outreach efforts, for example, members of both squads have visited troops overseas in places such as Iraq, Kuwait, Guam and Afghanistan.

“I always say, ‘Cheerleading doesn’t pay the bills, but it pays the soul,’” said Sea Gal Kristal-Lynn. “I love it. I love it because I love football — the sound of the players colliding and seeing them score right in front of me. I love it because of the fans. I love it because of the involvement with so much charity work. I love it because of the travel. It’s incomparable.”

The glam

As Sea Gals arrived for practice Tuesday, so did Laurel Cancilla, owner of Stretch and Sparkle, with plenty of rhinestones.

Cancilla, who has been designing the Sea Gals’ uniforms for more than a decade, came to help the squad add a touch of bling to its new matching winter coats. Meteorologists are predicting temperatures near freezing at kickoff on Sunday in New Jersey, and the Sea Gals want to be prepared to sparkle come rain, snow, sleet or hail.

The Broncos cheerleaders are used to cold weather. They hope to wear their leather cowboy chaps Sunday, but will have their skiwear handy just in case.

The Sea Gals have an official lipstick, MAC’s “Girl About Town.” When you’re a Sea Gal, there’s no such thing as sneaking out to the grocery store with bedhead, dressed in sweats and clogs. They dress and act as Seahawks ambassadors at all times.

Sea Gal Kristal-Lynn during a recent game.
Sea Gal Kristal-Lynn during a recent game.
Kevin Casey/Getty Images

“Because you represent the organization, you have to think of yourself as the whole picture,” Kristal-Lynn said. “We are held to a higher standard than any Jane out on the street.”

And it’s a traditional, all-American look. You won’t see any tattoos or extra piercings on these women.

But don’t mistake the glam for a desire for the wrong kind of attention. Though Kristal-Lynn said she’s never had a fan cross the line, she has learned to manage the spotlight.

“In six seasons, I’ve learned how to handle it,” she said. “A lot of people think our job is just skin and sparkles and being showy, but it’s got a lot of heart and soul to it — the sport, our charity work and what this organization stands for.”

Gehrke noted that the Broncos cheerleaders had a policy against fraternizing with players — and that they rarely interacted with players except at charity events off the field.

“The misconception is that you are a cheerleader so you can marry a player,” said Gehrke, who actually married a fellow teacher.

That’s not to say some fans don’t occasionally get the wrong idea.

“When you get in uncomfortable situations,” Gehrke said, “you just smile and nod and say, ‘Thanks for coming, thanks for participating,’ and you get yourself out of that situation as quickly as possible.”

Animals on board

The cheerleaders won’t be the only on-field entertainment supporting the Super Bowl teams.

Miles the Bronco and Blitz the Seahawk are featured in an ESPN “SportsCenter” commercial, and they’ll be at the game Sunday.

Then there are the live animal mascots — Thunder the horse for the Broncos and Taima the hawk for Seattle. Coincidentally, Taima is a Native American word that in many translations means thunder.

While Taima leads the Seahawks onto the field, Thunder gallops up and down the field after a touchdown or field goal. Thus, this year’s “Time to Ride” playoff slogan.

“Every time they see Thunder, they know something good happened — we’ve scored,” said Ann Judge-Wegener, who rides the horse.

Thunder will be “FedExed” to New Jersey, changing planes in Memphis, said the Arabian’s owner, Sharon Magness-Blake. It’s just too cold to transport the gelding across the country by land, she said.

And as the cheerleaders have their skiwear ready for inclement weather, so Thunder will be insulated from the cold.

“We’re prepared for everything,” Magness-Blake said. “We have three coats for him, six for us.”

Added Judge-Wegener. “The horse is going to take down the bird.”

The biggest game

Needless to say, both squads are excited to perform on the game’s biggest stage.

“You never in a million years think that you’re going to a Super Bowl. I speak for all the members of this team when I say we’re blessed,” said Tara Battiato, a Colorado native who is one of four Broncos cheer captains. “My mother’s going to be with me on this trip, and I think she’s still crying.”

Former Broncos cheerleader Gehrke offered a preview of what the 34 Sea Gals and 26 Broncos cheerleaders will experience Sunday based on her 1998 experience.

“There isn’t anything like standing on the field with thousands and thousands of people cheering,” Gehrke said. “Just being a small piece of it on the field was incredible. It was quite a roller coaster.”

For Sea Gal Kristal-Lynn, the game offers a bit of a conundrum, because she once was a Broncos cheerleader before moving to Seattle. She said the two organizations actually have a lot in common, including a similar focus on charity and community outreach.

“The Broncos are a wonderful organization,” she said. “It will be fun to see everyone — a homecoming of sorts.”

She paused and smiled, adding, “That said, I absolutely want us to win. I’m very loyal to the Seahawks now.”

And predictions on the outcome?

Miles the Bronco says 31–24 Denver.

Sea Gal Jessica begs to differ.

“It’s Seahawks all the way,” she said. “I don’t see it happening any other way.”

Broncos cheerleader Battiato isn’t making predictions.

“We are not talking about the score,” Battiato said. “We are just going to dance the hardest we’ve ever danced, and cheer the hardest we’ve ever cheered.”

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