The Price to Pay as an NFL Cheerleader

By: Triana Gando

No matter what’s on the scoreboard, you can count on these individuals to cheer on their team performing in front of thousands of fans. Often overlooked for their hard work and effort, NFL cheerleaders are more than shaking their pompoms.

For many young dancers, going professional cheering for a sports team is a dream. Sometimes that dream comes with a price to pay. Over the years, there have been multiple headlines of former cheerleader speaking out about being underpaid. From Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders filing a dispute towards the organization to lawsuits arising from Raiderettes over this matter, it’s been an ongoing issue. 

For some, this priceless experience is worth a lifetime.

UNLV alumni Milena McLaren had the opportunity to live her dreams as an NFL cheerleader for the Seattle Seahawks for two seasons and Houston Texans for one.

McLaren with the Seattle Sea Gals at CenturyLink Field.

She danced competitively at age five and continued for the next 10 years. When moving away to attend college, she had other dance goals in mind. During college, she devoted her time being a part of one of the school’s spirit teams, the Scarlet Dance Line, while holding multiple leadership roles of captain and eventually head coach. 

Her sights were set back on professional cheerleading. She idolized the Sea Gals, the cheerleading squad for the Seattle Seahawks, from an early age. The Sea Gals always had their final try out live streamed for the public. After watching it every year, she felt guilty for constantly making excuses to not try out. She finally booked a flight to Seattle the moment the group posted their 2017 tryout date. 

In preparation for her audition, she focused on health and fitness, learned their dance style, hair and makeup routine, all the way down to what their signature lipstick was. In order to know exactly what the judges wanted, she studied the girls who made and didn’t make the team. 

There were three different audition processes. Her first two seasons trying out for the Sea Gals consisted of performing a short improv, multiple combinations, and a business style interview with cuts in between. Trying out for the Texans had a similar process on top of a week long training camp learning additional choreography and a kick line set. Out of hundreds of people who auditioned, making the team was a big accomplishment for her. 

During a typical week as a professional cheerleader, practices took place two to three days out of the week for three to five hours. The group would go over each dance or feature that would be performed in the upcoming game. Practices right before the big day became demanding as there was no room for mistakes. In addition, promo appearances happened all year round interacting with the public during different events. For Sea Gals, these appearances were voluntary whereas the Texans required a certain number to be met to be “in good standing.” Finally, there’s game days. The team reports four to five hours prior to the game to get hair, makeup, and outfit ready for a field rehearsal. As fans began to arrive, the cheerleaders make appearances around the stadium whether that meant pre-game performances in the tailgate area or photo opportunities. The group would cheer and perform various halftime dances throughout the game. Following the game, a post game debrief took place to go over any notes from the director or coach. 

For the amount of time and effort that just goes into a week, it’s understandable why wages were such a concern for someone looking from the outside. Their wages are clearly communicated prior to auditioning and when signing the contract for the season. 

“While both teams made it very clear that our position as a cheerleader was a ‘part-time’ job, the Seahawks did not have any additional requirements. The Texans required, by contract, that we have either a full or part-time job, or be enrolled as a student,” said McLaren. 

After cheering two seasons in Seattle, McLaren made her way to Houston to cheer for the Texans.

The feedback from former cheerleaders and the public had no influence on McLaren.

“I never questioned whether I wanted to continue. I can’t speak for all of my past teammates but many I knew expressed they would have also done the same work for free. For so many of us, it wasn’t about the pay, but about the experiences and opportunities given. Do I think we deserve more recognition for the amount of work we do? Yes. But, if you ask anyone in their regular day job, I think they would all say the same, no matter what field of work they are in.”


On top of their pay, they received various sponsorships that took care of their needs from free tanning, salon services, gym memberships, and extensive discounts for makeup. 

Although McLaren is ready to hang up her pompoms and pack away her boots, her experiences from the two teams is something she will never forget. She was given opportunities to travel, represent something bigger than herself, and meet people who have shaped her into the person she is today all while pursuing her dreams. 

Houston Texans Cheerleaders at the NRG Stadium.

“It’s really unfortunate that NFL cheerleading has been put under fire lately because my experiences were amazing. If you’re trying to get into the industry for the money, you’re not in it for the right reasons. There isn’t a dollar amount that can be put on the opportunities and experiences I had while with the NFL. That’s why I continued to return for three seasons. I did it for the influence we have on the little girls whose dream is to be a cheerleader, for the fans sitting in the back row of the stadium who are there until the clock runs out no matter the score, and for friendships I have with my former teammates that I will have forever. That’s what I will take away from my time in the NFL.”

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