A shocking change to Oakland University Athletics came on April 19, when the department announced the combining of the cheer and dance teams to form one spirit squad.
“What we’re looking for is a highly energetic add to our game presentation,” Athletics Director Jeff Konya said. “Student-athletes that can help us with marketing and promotions and really be a driving force in our game-day atmosphere.”
This change puts the emphasis on the game-day experience, rather than the competitions that have been a large focus for both teams in the past.
“It’s really going to be more about the in-game and performance elements and trying to align what our fans love about the spirit squads, but give them the freedom and innovation to recraft and reimage what those performances are going to look like,” Konya said.
The teams learned of the decision on Wednesday evening, and the idea was not met with strong support from many of the student-athletes. Taylor Seifert, a dance team member who will be a fifth-year senior on next year’s team, described the general reaction as “shocked.”
“It’s a huge shock to pretty much everyone,” Seifert said. “It’s no easy decision, but I think there’s a lot of potential for it to be a good thing. But I think everyone is just in shock almost because it’s a new thing and change is never easy.”
Seifert noted that the biggest concern is not with the combination of the teams, but more with concern that the new team will no longer be competition-focused. The new team will not be able to participate in the National Cheerleaders Association national competition nor in the Universal Dance Association national competition.
“A lot of people are upset because the fact that a lot of people joined the team with the promise of going to nationals,” Seifert explained. “It’s a big part of when you’re a part of a dance or cheer team to have that experience . . . It’s not the one team [that is upsetting the athletes], it’s the no nationals.”
To help cushion the blow of no longer competing at nationals, the administrators told the teams that there is a possibility of a competition element for the spirit squads at next year’s Motor City Madness basketball tournament. This would allow the spirit squad to compete for the Horizon League championship, like every other sport in the athletics department.
If this was made a reality, the combined team could retain some of the competition element that drives these student-athletes. Seifert explained that, though it’s important to practice to do well in their game-day performances, the real driving factor has always been bettering themselves to compete.
“At the meeting, someone made a good point that nationals gives you the motivation to get better,” Seifert said. “You don’t just practice to practice, you practice to get better, so you can win.”
Though some of the dancers and cheerleaders are having a hard time seeing how the two teams will be able to come together as one in their routines, Konya and the athletics department see it as an opportunity for creativity.
“I think it’s innovative,” Konya said. “It lends itself for someone to come in and really be extremely creative with how they want to conceptualize what this could be from a team and performance experience.”
Another rationale Athletics pointed for the decision is monetary advantage.
“There’s been a lot of obligation of these student-athletes to fundraise for themselves,” Konya explained. “This way, by combining resources, we’re hoping that that burden is lessened.”
Though Seifert admitted competing in nationals and participating on the team is certainly expensive, the financial aspect is not a main concern of the student-athletes.
“[Nationals is] not a cheap trip at all, and a lot of that was either out of pocket or through fundraising,” Seifert said. “But we knew that going in, and we signed up for it . . . [the cost change] is definitely helpful, but not something we were concerned about.”
The athletics department sees a lot of benefit to combing the two teams’ budgets.
“This is a way for us to combine resources,” Konya said. “And in combining the resources of the two teams, I think we can enhance the overall student-athlete experience for those that choose to participate.”
Because of the initial shock of the news, it’s difficult to know how many of the dancers and cheerleaders will choose to return to next year’s combined team. Associate Athletic Director for Public Relations Scott MacDonald suggested the possibility that some of the team members could decide to create a student organization and compete in nationals that way.
The coaches of the new team are yet to be determined.
“It’s hard right now because it’s so fresh, and it’s hard to grasp this concept for a lot of us,” Seifert said. “It was not expected at all, and a lot of people right now are not interested in the idea . . . It’s not an ideal situation they want to be in.”