The divide over whether to provide complimentary tuition to certain athletes, including boys, is not new. For those in the “pro” column, they typically comp athletes with the idea that offering a free ride will attract additional membership to a gym and—in the case of male athletes—round out a team to deliver an edge over the competition.
Shawn Herrera, owner of Simi Valley, CA-based Cheer Force, believes comping athletes is a rampant practice in the industry but concedes it’s something “most gym owners don’t want to discuss or admit to [doing].” In reality, comping usually doesn’t work, Herrera opines. “Comping kids is like saying ‘I don’t believe in my product; we’re not good enough,’” he adds. “When you give people services for free, they don’t value it.”
Herrera uses Cheer Force’s special needs program as an example. “We used to provide free tuition for the kids [with special needs],” he explains. But it didn’t pay off: the kids didn’t take it seriously, and parents weren’t vested. There wasn’t the consequence of “wasting money or time,” Herrera reasons. Ultimately the kids dropped out.
But when Herrera made the decision to begin charging a low monthly $25 fee, something surprising happened: the parents didn’t resist and the kids started showing up. “It added value,” he says. “It was an epiphany: you don’t need to make it free to get kids to join your program.”
For Karen Potucek, co-owner and coach at Fairfield, NJ-based JuST Cheer All Stars, the topic of comping is complicated. “It’s a big issue,” she admits. “I don’t know how I feel about comping in general, but comping boys [versus girls] is not fair.” Potucek understands the need for male athletes but she empathizes with girls who could also use financial help. At 150 kids, her gym is on the smaller side, but “everyone pays,” she says.
Similar to Potucek, Herrera also takes a hard stance on comping athletes, but he does believe in providing financial breaks to his membership in the way of incentives. “For our higher-level athletes, we offer a 50 percent discount in fees based on skills,” he says, meaning if an athlete can perform a complicated tumbling routine or move, they pay less tuition.
Amy Grey, director of Palm Desert, CA-based Desert Elite Mavericks Cheer, has a different take: she considers scholarships and comping necessary. “We don’t do it across the board,” she says. But when they do, it is typically based on one of two things: loyalty, in the case of financial hardship, or the team’s need to entice boys to join. “Male athletes are few and far between,” points out Grey.
While Desert Elite will cover operational costs, such as tuition, it doesn’t mean those athletes receiving scholarships get a free ride. “We will comp their tuition but they pay the hard costs,” Grey notes, referencing “hard costs” as non-tuition-related expenses like uniforms and travel.
Like Grey, Tammy Smith, coach and president of Big Bear Elite Cheer in the resort community of Big Bear Lake, Calif., uses comping to maintain her membership. “[Waiving fees] gives kids a chance,” Smith says.
But Smith’s situation is unique. “Big Bear Lake is a small town and most parents don’t have the money,” she says. She knows firsthand—Smith started Big Bear Elite Cheer in August 2012 at the urging of parents because the alternatives (mostly school teams) were too expensive. Smith’s yearly program costs $150 and includes everything from coaching to uniforms. Competitions are extra, but are paid for by team fundraising and a partnership Smith created with the Lighthouse Project, a local non-profit devoted to creating a child-honoring community.
To date, Smith has 50 kids enrolled and believes her program goes beyond cheerleading. “It builds their confidence and teaches them discipline,” she says. Smith’s biggest motivator: to help all children who want to join her team—regardless of their ability or inability to pay. However, while Smith waives fees for athletes, she doesn’t let them off the hook. “They still have to raise the money,” she says, adding that they have two options: “They can sell candy, which we facilitate, or they can ask someone else to pay.” Smith believes this arrangement doesn’t diminish her program’s value.
It is this risk of diminished value that inspires Cheer Force’s Herrera to look beyond his own views on the issue of comping toward the future. “Comping is just a short-term fix to the problem [attracting new membership],” he says, “and owning a gym is a long-term investment.”