Why Sports Cheerleaders and Dancers Are Worth More Than Minimum Wage

Thanks to recent series of lawsuits, some NFL cheerleaders will now be paid the minimum wage, but that likely still doesn't reflect the full value they provide to a sports franchise.

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Jun 8 2016, 4:33pm

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Sports are a multibillion-dollar entertainment industry, and for franchises, particularly in the NFL and the NBA, cheerleaders and dancers are part of the show. Fans see them perform at games, on television, and at promotional events. Considering their visibility and ubiquity within thriving businesses, one might expect them to be paid well, or at least decently.

Recent lawsuits, however, tell a different story. The evidence in these cases indicated that cheerleaders for the Oakland Raiders, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the New York Jets made less than minimum wage—past tense, because subsequent legal victories mean those same cheerleaders will now make the minimum wage for each hour that they work.

Of course, that still doesn't mean that these women are making much money, and it definitely doesn't mean that they're earning anything close to what they're arguably worth to their employers.

Let's break things down, using some basic math and economics.

Read More: Why a Milwaukee Bucks Cheerleader Is Suing the Team

Lisa Murray, a former Golden State Warriors dancer and advocate for professional football and basketball performers, has investigated how many hours NFL cheerleaders actually work. She says that a league cheerleader is expected to practice six hours a week, and work as many as ten hours on game days. Since cheerleaders primarily perform at home games, they log an average of 11 hours a week during the season. (And note that this doesn't even include promotional appearances.)

Before the recent lawsuits, some NFL cheerleaders reportedly were making roughly $2 an hour. Others were making nothing at all. Having won multiple lawsuits, those NFL cheerleaders now stand to be paid the same hourly rate as a new hire at McDonald's. With a $7.25 federal minimum wage, they'll make about $160 every two weeks. So over a 20-week NFL season, they figure to earn about $1,600.

But is that really all these women are worth?

Worth more than minimum wage? Photo by Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

In economics, a worker's value can be measured by the amount of revenue they generate for their firm. Do cheerleaders and dancers generate value for sports franchises? It's easy to make an affirmative case.

Start with the place people most often see cheerleaders: during television broadcasts. One sponsorship marketing analyst speaking to Bloomberg Businessweek two years ago estimated that cheerleaders appear for an average of seven seconds during a NFL broadcast, and that that's "worth $8.25 million per season, or more than $317,000 per year for each of the 26 teams with squads last year." Two of my former students at Southern Utah University, Molly Cosby and Sehrish Sohel, calculated that, on average, league cheerleaders appear on the screen for about ten seconds per game, which would mean they're worth about $450,000 per squad, per season.

Now, how much of this money should go to them? Well, in the NBA and the NFL, leagues share about 50 percent of revenue with players. If we use that as a guide, then $225,000 should be given to each cheerleading squad. With 32 dancers per squad, that works about to roughly $7,000 per person, per season—more than four times the federal minimum wage, which would be a nice boost!

Of course, sports cheerleaders work more than a few seconds per game, and a significant portion of their time on the clock—on the floor or on the sidelines—is spent dancing. It's difficult to suss out just how much revenue this generates for teams. However, we can get a rough idea by looking at what professional dancers make in other entertainment businesses.

Dancers in Broadway musicals and in national tours are paid a minimum of $1,917 per week. Work in regional theatres pays $560 to $730 per week. Either way, it's unlikely that these dancers are being paid more than the revenue they are generating—theatrical productions are in the business of making money.

It's important to note that sports dancing and cheerleading generally is a part-time job, while stage and theater dancing is usually full-time. To make our apples-to-oranges comparison work, let's assume that stage and theater dancers are putting in 40-hour workweeks.

If that's the case, then their hourly wage ranges from $14 to $47.93. Now assume that professional sports dancers are worth something in the same range. If a NFL cheerleader worked 20 weeks and the hours we noted earlier, that would mean a seasonal paycheck of $3,080 to about $10,500.

Again, that's much higher than minimum wage, and much, much higher than what they've been getting previously.

Also remember that sports cheerleaders and dancers make promotional appearances. That is, they're putting in work hours for team marketing departments. These appearances can take place during the games, and also at corporate and charity events, like golf outings, that most of us never see. One cheerleader told Murray that she did 20 corporate events per year.

What cheerleaders earn from these events varies from team to team. For example, Murray found that the Raiders charge $500 per hour per cheerleader for corporate events. The San Francisco 49ers receive $300 per hour for each cheerleader during an event (with events lasting a minimum of two hours) and, according to Murray, $175 of that goes directly to the cheerleader. If a 49ers cheerleader did 20 appearances in a year, then, she would earn the organization $12,000 and pocket about $7,000 of that herself. Add in her hourly wage, and that cheerleader's earnings for the year come to around $8,600.

How does this compare to the revenue that same individual cheerleader is generating? Let's try to sketch out a rough ballpark figure. There's the $12,000 for corporate appearances, plus the $14,000 worth of he appearances during television broadcasts, based on the estimations by Businessweek and my former students. Then there's the value she brings as a live performer for fans in the stadium: let's take the dance wages we estimated earlier ($3,080 to about $10,500) and double it, on a generous assumption that dancers would receive 50 percent of total revenues just like professional football and basketball players.

Add it all up, and the revenue associated with the average pro cheerleader would range from $32,000 to $47,000. If that same average cheerleader is making $8,600, then she is being paid only 18 to 27 percent of the revenue associated with her labor.

A suite deal, sure, but how about keeping a fair portion of what you earn? Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

That's a rough estimate of the figures involved, but the discrepancy more likely than not. How did cheerleaders get here? Interestingly enough, sports history offers a major clue. In 1956, estimates economist Stefan Szymanski, Major League Baseball players were paid about 17 percent of league revenue, right in the middle of the current cheerleader ballpark.

Today, of course, baseball players are paid much more as their bargaining power has changed dramatically. In the 1960s, players established an effective labor union, one whose efforts led to the destruction of the Reserve Clause and the creation of veteran free agency. Once teams had to compete to sign talent, salaries inevitably rose; in the here and now, players and management in every major sport agree to an overall revenue split via collective bargaining.

Unlike athletes and Broadway dancers, sports cheerleaders and dancers don't have a union. That severely limits their bargaining power, especially because the supply of potential performers is so large: according to Murray, about 160 women try out for the Warriors' 20 dance team slots each season. Two to three times more try out for the Dallas Cowboys.

Low cheerleader pay reflects these realities. That said, it would be myopic to write sports dancers off as simple victims of supply and demand. In a labor market, worker wages are certainly impacted by supply; however, the revenue generated by those same workers is not. Along the same lines, cheerleaders and dancers freely choose to work for teams, and many of them are relatively happy to do so—just as many baseball players were happy prior to unionization. But that doesn't mean they're not being exploited all the same.

Like college athletes today, sports cheerleaders and dancers are being paid much less than the revenues they generate. Winning a minimum wage is a victory, but as some simple math makes clear, they have a long way to go before they are paid anything close to their value to professional teams, let alone a fair portion of what they earn.