They streamed into the USF Sun Dome last weekend, 150 fit young women wearing shorts and sequined sports bras, shouldering bags bulging with makeup and hair spray, extra shoes and stockings. They turned in resumes and head shots, turned up their already outgoing personalities. Pasted numbers on their hips.
For five hours, they rehearsed dance routines, trying to impress the 11 judges, hoping to earn one of 32 coveted places on the sidelines cheering for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"It's exhausting, nerve-racking — just emotionally draining," said Taylor Mock, 23, a University of Tampa senior. "But everybody is super pumped up."
Many of the women auditioning had heard about the lawsuits.
Just days before, cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills became the third National Football League squad to file a class-action lawsuit against their team, following cheerleaders from the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals. The women said they hadn't been paid for their time, that they had been subjected to harsh rules about how much bread they could eat and how often they must change their tampons. They complained that they had to parade around casinos in bikinis, sell swimsuit calendars, sit on lecherous golfers' laps.
Few of the women auditioning for the Bucs seemed to care about the allegations. They knew if they were chosen they would have to work 20 to 30 hours a week, pay to get their nails done, go to charity appearances — and only earn $100 per game.
If you want to be a cheerleader, "any NFL cheerleader, don't do it for the money. It's not there," said Mock, who grew up wanting to wear the Bucs' original Creamsicle colors. "It's so time consuming. But it's so worth it."
Besides, Bucs cheerleader Cori Campbell, 24, insisted, "Nothing like that would go on here."
But a former cheerleader, who was on the squad for a decade, said she was surprised NFL cheerleaders took so long to speak up. Her experiences didn't include dunk tanks or casino crawls. But during her years with the Buccaneers, she learned to steer clear of corporate Christmas parties and golf carts.
"There was a lot of inappropriate touching," said Mimi Kilpatrick, 48, who last cheered for the Bucs in 2001. "There were expectations from the corporate clients especially. 'I paid a lot of money for this tournament, so if I want to give you more than a hug . . .'
"We didn't want to make waves. But we weren't encouraged to protect ourselves the way we should have been. We didn't really have anyone who had our backs."
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The NFL didn't have cheerleaders until 1954, when the Baltimore Colts added a squad to its marching band. Early NFL cheerleaders were primarily students from local high schools or colleges, who only worked a few hours during home games. Through the 1960s, many NFL teams even had male cheerleaders.
In 1972, the Dallas Cowboys let their boy cheerleaders go, hired a squad of beautiful women over age 18 and redesigned the uniform, baring the cheerleaders' flat bellies, capitalizing on their cleavage. The team hired a choreographer to turn tumbling routines into go-go dances.
The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders became international sex symbols — but except for some public appearances, they still didn't get paid.
Today, 26 of the 32 NFL teams have cheerleaders. The Buccaneers franchise is worth just over $1 billion, according to an August 2013 article in Forbes, and generates $267 million in annual revenue. Offensive guard Carl Nicks will earn $7 million this season.
And each cheerleader will make a minimum of $800 for kicking and smiling on the sidelines of eight home games.
Like most of her teammates, Kilpatrick had wanted to be a cheerleader since she was in kindergarten. She never got compensated at Leto Comprehensive High School in Tampa, never expected to make money with the Bucs.
She cheered "professionally" for five years, then took off five years to be a flight attendant. In 1998, she returned to the squad and kept kicking until 2001, when she was 35.
"When I started, being a Bucs cheerleader was more about being a 'girl next door' and a good student," said Kilpatrick, who first made the squad in 1986 during her sophomore year at the University of South Florida. "It wasn't so focused just on beauty back then. It wasn't about being the skinniest or having the longest blond hair.
"But it changed dramatically during the years I was doing it," she said. "It became much more sexualized: the costumes, the swimsuit calendars, all the expectations. You just had to roll with the punches, accept it. You couldn't really complain.
"We had practice three nights a week, plus all day Sunday for home games. And we had to do at least 20 voluntary appearances a year in hospitals, for the United Way or March of Dimes. We got paid $200 per season, plus two tickets to each home game."
Hair and makeup, manicures and other expenses added up to at least $500 a month. "It would have been nice to at least have been reimbursed for that," she said.
Rules changed with each cheerleading director; some were more strict or apt to bench you. The women weren't allowed to talk to football players. They couldn't change their hairstyle or color without the coach's permission. Every cheerleader had to wear the same "Bucs red" shade of lipstick.
"For a while, they had some makeup sponsor, so we all had to use that brand. But it made us break out so they stopped that," said Kilpatrick. The coach had "weigh-ins" sometimes, "in front of everyone," she said. "If your weight gain was obvious, they would sideline you for being a little jiggly."
The only way to make money as a Bucs cheerleader was to go to certain public appearances where the Bucs got $200 an hour per cheerleader, but the women received only $75 of that, Kilpatrick said. "You couldn't just sign up. The coach had to choose you. And the corporate people could specify they wanted a redhead and two blonds, or whatever. No one ever asked for an African-American, so I didn't get a lot of those calls."
Kilpatrick began cheering in the Bucs' old stadium when the squad was still known as the SwashBucklers. When the team moved to Raymond James in 1998, she said, the cheerleaders were excited to get their own locker room. "But when we got there, it only had two stalls and one mirror — for 32 girls!"
The Bucs were giving away drawstring backpacks at that first game, she said. "Some of the girls ran to the gate to get the giveaway, and the coach stood on her chair shaking her finger at us, telling us how awful and ungrateful we all were, how lucky we were to be part of the squad.
"And while she was yelling at us, the toilets started bubbling over and all the crap got all over our stuff on the floor. And we had to run out and do our makeup in the tunnel."
Now, Kilpatrick said, the cheerleaders have a wonderful locker room at One Buc Place. And a lot more public appearances, both voluntary and paid.
She never felt exploited at charity appearances, she said. She enjoyed going to hospitals and doing military shows, especially when she got to travel.
"But the corporate parties were always kind of shady," she said. "Men would get drunk at the golf tournaments, pull you into the carts to sit on their laps. There was inappropriate touching.
"But you like (being on the team) enough that it outweighs all the negatives," she said. "It's worth it. Absolutely. I knew I'd never make it to Broadway, but I made it to the Bucs' stadium."
NFL cheerleaders "should be fairly compensated for their time," said Kilpatrick. "At least minimum wage and expenses."
So would she have signed on to a lawsuit against the Bucs?
"No," said Kilpatrick, who is now married and has a 3-year-old son. "I mean, cheerleading was so important to me. It became my identity. I knew if I left — or complained — there were 100 other women out there who wanted to take my spot."
• • •
This year, the tryouts stretched to three weeks. Optional workshops were held before the audition. Then there was a training camp, fitness tests and interviews with executives, which included questions about Bucs history.
By the end of last weekend, the 150 hopefuls had been cut to 60: college students and high school teachers, counselors and marketing managers. All the women smiling, spinning and kicking to a long loop of Ne-Yo's Let Me Love You.
Mock, a communications/broadcast television major who will graduate magna cum laude this week, has been on the Bucs' squad for three straight seasons and was co-captain last year. But, like everyone else, she had to try out again. She will find out Thursday, the same day as the NFL draft, if she has made it.
If you are chosen, Mock said, you have to sign a contract that "does tell you what you have to uphold, whether it's your hair, your appearance." But the Bucs provide a nutritionist and personal trainer to help. And the team doesn't make the cheerleaders weigh in, or tell them when to change their tampons.
The Buccaneers would not provide a copy of the cheerleaders' contract or handbook, or reveal the cheerleaders' pay. Members of last year's squad say they received $100 per game.
"Cheerleaders are part-time employees," said an official statement the team released Thursday. "They are compensated for all hours worked, on an hourly basis." Cheerleaders practice twice a week, the statement said. "On the average, they spend eight hours a week in practice . . . and about seven hours on game days."
That works out to just over $14 an hour.
"Members of the squad are expected to be available for all home games," said the statement. "We also ask that they participate in various events in the community on other days based on their availability and interest."
Cheerleaders get free uniforms, their mileage gets reimbursed, and they receive complimentary visits to a local hair salon, said the team. A makeup artist is available on game days.
"It's not really anything the Bucs require from us. It's more the personal brand you want to keep up," says Cori Campbell, who graduated from USF. "The outfits aren't the biggest, so you want to make sure you look the best you can when you're on the field."
Jessica Jordan, 26, cheered for the Bucs in 2011-12 and was trying out again last week. She teaches AP classes at Brandon High and said that after other NFL cheerleaders sued their three teams, her principal started asking questions.
"You never told stories about any of that," she quotes him as saying. "I'm like, because we don't deal with that, fortunately. And hopefully it's not like that with some other teams."
News researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.