Why are NFL and NBA cheerleaders barely earning minimum wage?

AP Photo/Gary Wiepert

In 2014, former members of the Bills' cheerleading squad, the Buffalo Jills, sued the team over low pay and alleged mistreatment.

You see them on the sidelines for pee-wee, high school, college and professional games. They are just as much a part of the fabric of football and basketball as mascots and concession stands.

But in spite of having a rich history of athleticism, entertaining fans and supporting organizations, professional cheerleaders (or dancers) in the National Football League and National Basketball Association have little by way of financial earnings. On average, cheerleaders earn approximately $75 to $150 per game. That rate doesn't traditionally consider the hours of practice the cheerleaders have to put in ahead of the game.

In fact, last month the Milwaukee Bucks settled a lawsuit with former cheerleader Lauren Herington for the team's failure to adhere to the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act and Wisconsin's wage and payment laws. Having worked the 2013-14 season (before Marc Lasry and Wes Edens became the team's co-owners), Herington claimed that on average Bucks dancers spent 30-40 hours a week in rehearsals, workout sessions, practices, charity events and performing at games. She noted that the payments were as such: $65 for games, $30 for practice and $50 for special events. With total hours worked per week considered, that comes out to about $3.50 to $4.50 an hour on average.

While lawsuits in both leagues have resulted in guarantees of improved wages for some, the earnings for the highest paid cheerleaders remains well below the estimated value they add to their organizations.

But why? How are cheerleaders such an integral part of the NBA and NFL experience -- providing entertainment, community service and branding -- but remain seemingly underpaid?

For their part, NFL and NBA teams have historically taken the position that cheerleaders are independent contractors. If classified as contractors, the teams aren't required to pay them salaries in line with state and federal minimum wages. The recent legal battles have hinged on whether cheerleaders are employees of these organizations, a fact that is determined by how much control an individual has on the way they perform their duties.

Horecee St. Cyr, 33, a Howard University graduate and formally trained actor and dancer who spent three seasons (2008-11) with the LA Clippers and one season (2004-05) with the Washington Wizards was keenly aware of the discrepancy from Day 1.

"[Pro] dancers are [inexpensive] labor and entertainment for these ball clubs that rake in millions of dollars. We were underpaid and the long hours limited our ability to pursue other opportunities in performance. We didn't get any health benefits or insurance," St. Cyr added.

Such conditions explain why many of the cheerleaders across professional sports leagues tend to be recent college graduates less concerned with benefits and career longevity, or women with other full-time jobs who can afford to forgo benefits from their team. To be fair, St. Cyr, who is now a working actress and serves on the board of the art rehabilitation non-profit HIPPO Life, acknowledges that some teams made an effort to show they valued the cheerleaders in non-monetary ways.

"At the Wizards, while the pay wasn't great, I felt a sense of community. The [team] helped the cheerleaders get sponsorships [from local spas, health care providers and beauty brands], made sure we had secured parking and practice locations. And they always gave us our [comp] game tickets. That went a long way." 

Kim Griffith, 38, a Howard and Emory University graduate who cheered for a season with the Carolina Panthers and five years with the Atlanta Falcons, provided some great insight as well.

"When I first started, I was in my second year of grad school, and I had a part-time job," she said. "Once I graduated, I worked full-time and cheered for the Falcons on the side. I loved to dance, and I needed something to do outside of school and my job that wasn't so serious. I was only fine with the pay because I loved the dancing, performing and service."

Many teams require that cheerleaders participate in community service activities and provide occasional paid appearances. But by and large, the teams are seemingly counting on the love for dancing and service to motivate participation.

"With the Falcons we had to sign a contract that required us to have a full-time job, be a full-time student or be a stay-at-home mom. So, I don't think money was why people chose to do it," Griffith said. "Could they have paid us more? Absolutely."

If the love of dancing and community service weren't enough to encourage intense training and performances for nominal pay, Griffith, who is now a wife, mother and a Famous Toastery restaurant franchisee, shared that there were still other inducements. "We got tickets for games, free products and discounts on clothing. But for me one of the greatest incentives was the opportunity it afforded me to travel. I was on a small team that performed for the U.S. troops [USO] and at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl. I traveled to countries I wouldn't have otherwise gone."

There seem to be some legitimate reasons that compel women to cheer for nominal wages. But is that the real reason teams pay so little?

Surely, it shouldn't be that teams underpay cheerleaders because they know the women love dancing and are willing to accept it. For one, no other industry comes to mind in which employees are expected to supplement their incomes (to the point of earning wages below state and federal minimum wage standards) based simply on how much they love their work.

For example, professional players aren't expected to devalue their efforts. In fact, the minimum salary for an NBA rookie is $815,615 (for the 2017 - 2018 season) and $465,000 for a first-year NFL player in 2017. Those wages afford each player a comfortable lifestyle while doing something they love. 

And the willingness to accept the pay is a fallacy.

Historically, and often behind-the-scenes, cheerleaders are vocal with their dissatisfaction. In 1995, for instance, the Buffalo Jills cheerleaders won a complaint against the Buffalo Bills before the National Labor Relations Board. The Jills earned the right to be classified as employees when the NLRB determined that the Bills exercised significant control over things like cheerleaders' schedules, uniforms, and weight. The Jills subsequently formed the first-ever professional cheerleaders' union to bargain for better employee rights. The Bills, rather than respond with more fair pay, quashed the union by canceling all appearances and contracting out its cheerleading services. In April 2014, the Jills filed a class action lawsuit, alleging they had been improperly classified as independent contractors rather than employees. The courts ruled in their favor in 2016.

Luckily, the leagues are taking notice. In fact, NBA spokesman Mike Bass noted that: "Team dancers are an important part of the NBA game experience and are valued members of the NBA family. As for all employees, we work with our teams to ensure that they comply with all applicable wage and working condition laws."

We can only hope that as these women continue to use the courts to fight for fair wages, teams will begin to pay them what they're worth.

Cecelia Townes is a proud graduate of UCLA School of Law and the Real HU in Washington. She used to ball so hard on the tennis court. Now she serves it up on her blog, GladiatHers.com, and with student-athletes with Beyond the Game LLC. Follow Cecelia on Twitter & Instagram @SportyEsquire

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