The Baltimore Colts were the first NFL team to have full-time cheerleaders in 1954. More than six decades later, the Indianapolis Colts are at the forefront of another new strategy: virtual cheerleader auditions.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, there’s no way to audition cheerleaders in person. More than half a dozen NFL clubs, including the Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, New Orleans Saints, and Kansas City Chiefs are utilizing cell phones, Skype, Zoom and other forms of technology to hire their squads for the 2020 season.
Aspiring cheerleaders are answering the call – the Colts say they will likely draw double or triple the applications compared to a normal year.
Some franchises like the Colts and Eagles will conduct the entire process online from start to finish. Others, like the Broncos and Dolphins, are asking candidates to apply virtually. But they still want to interview finalists in person once stay-at-home regulations are lifted.
The Colts ask their 26-person squad to audition every season. The team is asking applicants to submit their preliminary videos by April 19. The top 50 candidates will be judged on a variety of factors, including choreography, dance technique, fitness, and football knowledge.
With seven cheerleaders retiring this off-season, there will be at least seven slots open for rookies. As team ambassadors, Colts cheerleaders log more than 100,000 hours of appearances per season.
“We posted dates of when we would do auditions months ago. There have been people waiting weeks, months, a lifetime to audition for our program. We just want to get the process started and get it going,” said Kelly Tilley, the Colts director of cheerleading. “Right now, the biggest resource we have is time. So we’re going to go for this, we’re going to try it. We’re optimistic we can keep the integrity of what we’ve done in the past by doing it virtually.”
The Eagles, meanwhile, are inviting applicants to “compete from home” via a virtual, open-call audition. The Eagles are asking online applicants to learn a 30-second dance routine, then upload it to a club web site by April 30. Similar to the Colts, the Eagles will go completely virtual, including final live interviews conducted online, according to Jen Kavanagh, the team’s senior vice president of media and marketing.
“Everybody has the basic tools to participate. Your camera phone, or Skype, or Zoom, or whatever it is. We all have those tools,” Kavanagh said.
The Eagles cheerleader squad makes over 350 community appearances per season. Unlike other clubs, the Eagles are automatically extending the contract of 30 cheerleaders from the 2019 season who want to return. That leaves seven roster slots to fill.
Said Kavanagh: “Under normal circumstances, the entire team auditions every year. But these are unusual circumstances. So we felt like it was the right move.”
The Eagles’ auditions are also open to men and women. Last season, Kyle Tanguay became the Eagles’ first male cheerleader in 35 years. He recently appeared on ABC’s “American Idol.”
“We expect we’ll have other men audition too – which is great,” Kavanagh said.
As soon as the coronavirus pandemic began making its mark in sports, the Broncos were one of the first teams to go virtual, posting their online audition application on March 20.
“We don’t know exactly when things are going to get back to normal, but sports are an interesting thing,” Shawna Peters, the Broncos’ cheerleading director, said. “We have a short window of time where we do the bulk of our work, and it was important for us as a team to look for ways that we could stay on schedule.”
When she began working from home, Peters and her staff consulted with the Broncos’ IT department on building an online application. In years past, applicants would show up on the first day of auditions to introduce themselves to the team.
For the next step of the audition process, the remaining applicants will receive a link to videos of the dance routines that they need to learn and recreate on their own. On April 17, the top 50 finalists will be chosen for the penultimate step: the business interviews.
The business interviews will be conducted by the Broncos’ executive staff on Zoom, something that has never been done before, Peters said. While it is unprecedented, it is not how the team will round out the audition process.
“For that last round of final auditions, we just think as an organization it’s important to meet these women in person,” Peters said. “We’d love to prepare for things, but that is just not the circumstance that we’re in. If we get the green light that we are moving forward in the NFL, we will conduct that final audition as a group, in-person together, and make it work.”
The virtual approach is also new to the Dolphins, said Laura Sandall, the team’s vice president of marketing. The Dolphins recently made the move to a virtual application for the preliminary auditions, with an online audition questionnaire, headshot, and audition video due by May 2.
Given the unique circumstance, the Dolphins have taken to both the team’s social media accounts as well as their cheer-team profiles to promote the changes. Already, they have an uptick in registration during the first two weeks of virtual auditions compared to last year.
For the time being, everything will be virtual until the final round of the application process – much like the Broncos are doing. Sandall is still holding out hope that the team will be able to host the final auditions boot camp week in person, at a time to be determined.
“Once we get past the first round, we want to see how you do in a kick line,” Sandall said. “We probably need to see things a little bit more specific and share with them routines that they need to audition with. But it will be really fun to see what these submissions look like, and our team – they’ve totally embraced it.”
At first, Stephanie Judah, director of cheer for the Chiefs, wanted to postpone cheerleader auditions. But as she watched the national coronavirus news in Kansas City, she decided going virtual was the best way to ensure the health and safety of all applicants.
Starting April 3, the Chiefs invited applicants to upload their applications/videos through April 30. Even if that means inferior video quality, Judah does not want applicants running around to ballfields and stadiums to shoot their audition tapes.
“I don’t expect professional photography. I know you’re going to film it on your phone. And that’s totally fine -I want you to be safe.”
So far, would-be cheerleaders are embracing the virtual hiring process.
With two weeks of applications still to go, the Colts have already received 150 applications vs. 100 total last season, according to Tilley. Applicants are “coming out of the woodwork,” she said.
By the time the Broncos application closed April 3, nearly 250 people had applied, said, Peters. That’s 100 more than the team typically gets on an annual basis.
The Chiefs normally draw their cheerleader candidates from the surrounding states of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, and Nebraska. Now they’re getting applicants from as far away as California and the East Coast.
“The second we announced virtual, I had a flood of registrations come through. I think it’s two things. One, people are at home and they’re thinking, ‘Well, why not? I’m sitting here, I’ve got time, and I can take the time to prepare,’” Judah said. “I also think it’s not as intimidating. Whether it’s a tryout in sports or an audition in dance, it’s a scary thing for everybody. When you remove the fact you don’t have to show up in person, it’s not quite as scary or intimidating.”