Competitive cheerleading got a boost in 2004 with the inception of the United States All Star Federation, which conducts annual championships at Disney World in Orlando. By 2006, more than 100 teams from 11 countries were competing in the event. Countless other teams exist across the country—there are literally hundreds of cheerleading associations. Nearly every week there is a national event. The competitions are based on the school year, taking place between November and May.
The USASF championship and a dozen other competitions nationwide are streamed by Varsity Wired. Cheerleaders and parents like to see the routines on video, both for fun and feedback.
Events are presented in two halves, mostly on Saturdays, but sometimes on Sundays. The younger cheerleaders perform in the morning, and the afternoon features the more experienced squads. Some events include exhibition performances that are not part of the judging.
In addition to dividing squads by age, a new category has been showing up called "dance." Coverage for this style of cheering is similar to dance recitals—mostly wide-angle, but most videographers zoom in for occasional close-ups.
A videographer who got into this niche early on is Greater Boston's Bob Anderson. In addition to cheerleading competitions, he videotapes marching bands, talent shows, modeling, mixed martial arts, recitals, rock bands, and color guard pageants. Anderson says that videotaping performance events and pageants is "the exact opposite of wedding videography—high volume and small dollars on each video." But he says he would rather record these events than a wedding. "I'm not artistic; I'm a mechanical, meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. I perform straight documentation of events."
Kids' events are the greatest source of his income as a videographer. According to Anderson, cheerleading competitions are the fastest-growing segment of pageantry. He records about 12 cheer events per year. He sells, on average, 200 to 400 DVDs to parents at each event. At a large cheerleading event in Atlantic City, New Jersey, all the parents received DVDs of each performance as part of their entrance fee. As a result, Anderson sold 2,500 "Instant DVDs"—discs he quickly duplicates and sells on-site. EventDV Gadget Bag columnist Ed Wardyga records cheer videos through his own company, KVI Media in Rhode Island. Wardyga shoots with a single camera. Serving the divergent needs of parents and coaches is similar to shooting sports, he says. Coaches want to see wide shots for critique purposes, while parents want close-ups of their lovely children. He splits the difference by performing zooms and pans only during the stationary portions of the routines, where there is just cheering and no movement.
Derek Soukup of South Dakota-based Artistic Video Productions videotapes two cheer events each year. One is called the Valentine's Day Cheer and Dance Classic, and is hosted by the Dakota Spirit organization. It's the state's largest cheer competition, with 70 cheer teams and over 1,700 cheerleaders ages five to 18 competing.
The other event is the end-of-year show for the Dakota Spirit, to which parents, friends, and family are invited. More than 1,000 spectators attend the event.
According to Soukup, "The Valentine's Day Classic is very popular and pretty lucrative. I usually sell about 80 copies at $30 a piece. The great thing is that the editing can be done in one night, and then it just turns into a duplication job."
LaDonna Moore of LaDonna Visual Artistry, recently selected to the 2006 EventDV 25, has received several local and national awards. She is the director of public information for the 4EVER Group and is the official videographer for the Mid-Cities Pee Wee Football and Cheerleading Association in Bedford, Texas, located between Dallas and Ft. Worth. She videotapes three different competitions: Flag (younger girls), Junior, and Senior leagues. Moore says that the Flag videos are the most popular.
Moore's involvement with the competitions began when her daughter started cheerleading in the Flag league and Moore created a highlight and competition video for the team at the end of the season. The chair of the league's board heard reports of the video's professional quality and asked LaDonna if she would videotape the main event. The parents and coaches had complained about the videographer from previous years. The chair told Moore she could sell DVDs directly to the parents and keep all the proceeds.
She gives the board a copy, but even the volunteer coaches buy Moore's DVDs.
Production and Camera Setup
The cheerleading competitions that Moore videotapes take place on a Saturday or Sunday in October, and so far they have occurred when she does not have a wedding scheduled. She takes in at least $2,000 from videotaping cheer events, but can earn $5,000 to $7,000 from a wedding, commensurate with the effort and plenty of postproduction time that goes into a wedding video. Regardless of the pay differential, Moore loves to be part of her daughter's cheerleading organization.
Moore logs a six-hour day of shooting and then two days of editing and DVD authoring. She says the coaches like to watch the DVDs to see all the routines and get ideas for the following season. Moore uses a single Sony VX2000, set up in a center position midway up the bleachers. She sets up a single wireless mic on a stand on the floor.
Soukup started filming cheerleading competitions with two cameras, the second camera getting a side shot. Discussions with coaches revealed that they want to see a wide shot of the entire routine rather than any close-ups. So he now shoots with a single Sony PD 170 camera. Depending on his setup, he sometimes uses a wide-angle adapter to capture the entire mat.
Prior to each event, Wardyga discusses with the coordinator such concerns as timing, direction, and placement of every part of the event. That way he knows where the cheerleaders will enter and exit. This reduces his risk of surprises.
Wardyga uses a broadcast-size JVC GY X2B camera and records on an external FireWire hard drive feeding a now-discontinued FireStore hard drive recorder. He mounts his camera on a five-foot stage that he brings with him and uses a 9" production monitor and sound-isolating headphones.
During the intermission between the end of the cheer competition and the awards presentation, Wardyga gets B-roll shots including close-ups that he uses in the openings of his DVDs.
Anderson sets up his camera behind the judges. He uses a Sony DSR 250 or a DSR 300 when he needs to record for more than an hour continuously. Otherwise, he uses a Sony VX2000 or a PD 170. At larger venues, Anderson will hire a local camera operator or one he finds on Craigslist. He directs the shoot and spends time talking with the show promoter and parents; he says this schmoozing results in higher sales volume.
"Part of this business is looking good," says Anderson. He uses a studio zoom control on a professional tripod, monitors his video through a 15" LCD display, and sends video to a Digital8 deck for backup. Then he positions another LCD monitor so parents can see his shots.
If that's not enough, at some of the larger venues Anderson sets up his 32" LCD at the sales table. He sends the audio and video from his live camera to the monitor using either a CAT-5 Ethernet cable or a WEVI transmitter. Recording onto a Panasonic standalone DVD recorder in DVD-RAM mode, he turns on "chase play" or "time slip," which allows the viewers to see an instant replay from 10 minutes prior, as he continues to record onto the recorder. He makes sure that the announcer at the event lets the squad and their parents know they can view the instant replay of themselves at Anderson's DVD table.
A veteran videographer, Anderson believes in backups. He records the same scene on both a FireWire-connected recorder and either a Digital8 for short events or a full-size DV deck for longer shows. He records in LP mode when possible and reports no compatibility problems from machine to machine as long as they are all Sonys. The S-Video and audio go to a distribution amplifier and then to three or more standalone DVD recorders. They provide more than backups; having added recorders means that he can be recording on one DVD recorder while the other is finalizing. Anderson says he has taken as many as 10 DVD recorders on location. "It's not like recording on videotape," says Anderson. "The DVD medium can be a little finicky."
In addition to a camera, monitors, and DVD recorders, Anderson brings tower DVD duplicators and pre-labeled discs to the competitions he shoots. He records direct to disc on DVD+R burners that finalize in 45 seconds. Then he immediately duplicates and sells Instant DVDs. Prior to DVDs, Anderson would bring racks of VHS VCRs. During his 20-year career, Anderson estimates he sold 10,000 "Instant VHS" tapes.
Rather than rely on the show promoters to pre-sell DVDs, Anderson brings a table and hires as many as four staffers to sell and duplicate the DVDs. He uses ProDisc and Ridata inkjet-printable DVD+R disc media for Instant DVDs and Taiyo Yuden DVD-R for the edited productions. The +R lets him finalize in 45 seconds. According to Anderson, the -Rs take 90 seconds to finalize. That extra 45 seconds can be crucial for his crew to start duping the discs.
Editing Cheer Videos
Rather than copy discs on site, Ed Wardyga produces edited DVDs that he mails to the parents. The DVD opens with credits and cheer slogans displayed as text. During each squad's routine, he keys in team and division names. He adds a stock digital wipe as a transition between each cheer routine and occasional special effects to heighten the excitement.
Wardyga adds B-roll of trophies, medals, and ribbons, and during the presentation of awards, he keys in titles that indicate team names, divisions, and placement. He concludes the DVD with an edited video montage of everyone on the floor after the awards with keyed credits. "Both winners and non-winners are included," says Wardyga, "There are no losers in cheer competitions."
LaDonna Moore says she tries to keep editing as simple as possible, using Final Cut Pro and Digital Juice backgrounds. She opens her video with the league's title, such as "Flag League." Then each team gets titled as members enter the room for their performance. Moore follows this with awards presentations, and she keys in text to indicate the team placements. She divides the DVDs into chapters for each team's performance. Moore's DVDs are ready two to three weeks after the competition. In addition to Instant DVDs, Anderson also provides edited DVDs. The edited versions start with an FBI anti-copying warning followed by program title and date. Then he shows the routines, the awards ceremony, and closing credits. Following that are outtakes—shots taken during intermission when the DJ plays dance music. The kids have fun doing line dances and the Macarena. Knowing this segment is a hit with families, Anderson gets close-ups as well as long shots and edits them to the music.
Pirates of Cheer
Wardyga reports that his sales have dropped a little because of pirating parents. "Pirating was taking place where one squad member would buy a DVD and copy it for the entire team. Each year it got worse, and the organizers of the events didn't seem to care, even though they got a percentage from the sales of the DVDs."
Anderson reported that he has heard parents, right at his table, say they will buy one DVD and make copies for other parents. That's why he put the FBI warning at the beginning of each DVD. He says that he has developed a reputation for quality and that the show promoters seek him out.
Contracts and Pricing
Anderson has been working for the same cheerleading organizations for so long that he is comfortable without a written contract. He requires that the organization prohibit other cameras and that the announcer remind attendees to get DVDs at his table. He also makes sure the organizers insert his order forms into the show programs.
He prices Instant DVDs at $20-25 each and edited DVDs at $35. His sales have ranged from almost nothing to as high as $25,000 from a single event.
Wardyga sells and mails about 300 DVDs for each show. Each show takes up two discs. Pricing is $30 for a single disc (presumably the one that has your child's squad on it) or $50 for the pair. His annual gross sales from cheer videos have averaged about $8,000. He gives the event organizers a percentage of the gross sales of the DVDs.
Moore sets up a monitor at a sales table where she plays the previous year's DVD. "The girls love to crowd around to watch," says Moore. She offers individual league DVDs for $20 and a DVD of all three leagues for $30. She says she doesn't need any signage because she is established; parents and cheerleaders know who she is.
Soukup also produces a highlights video for his clients' final performances. "They pay me a small amount to cover costs, but since they are a non-profit organization, I write the rest off as a donation. It's my way of giving back to my customer and our community. The highlight video is included with the final DVD, and it really does help sell the DVDs." Soukup's edited DVDs sell for $30.
Anderson tells the story of a time the show photographer was such a nuisance to him that he told the promoters he would not videotape next year's event. They fired the photographer, knowing they would be without the commission they get from the photographer. That's how much they value Anderson's videos.
According to Moore, last year a mother asked who was shooting the video. She said, "I'll only buy if it's the same lady who did them last year."
Stuart Sweetow runs video production company AV Consultants in Oakland, CA. He taught video production at UC Berkeley Extension, was associate editor of Wedding and Event Videography, and is a contributing editor of Camcorder & Computer Video magazine.