Cheerleading is no longer a sideline sport.
With roughly 4 million participants from elementary school through college, revenue estimated at more than $2 billion a year and national championships aired on ESPN, cheerleading has evolved into a big business.
With more than 70 countries participating in cheerleading, there’s even talk of it becoming an Olympic sport in 2020.
At the center of the cheerleading industry stands Jeff Webb, the founder of Varsity Brands, whose privately held company controls much of the fast-growing sport.
Founded in 1974 by Webb, a former University of Oklahoma cheerleader, Varsity is the No. 1 seller of cheerleading uniforms, the force behind the high school, college and international championships, an operator of summer cheerleading camps and the publisher of American Cheerleader, the industry’s official magazine.
The 2017 World Cheerleading Championships taking place this week at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando is expected to draw 2,500 participants from 70 countries. In 2009, there were 2,000 participants from 45 countries.
Growing along with the industry, Varsity has seen its top line expand by a steady 7-to-8 percent a year.
Webb, who also founded cheerleading’s governing body, is unapologetic about his company’s control over the business.
“We built this from scratch, working out of the second bedroom of my apartment,” he said of Varsity’s 1975 origins. “We did everything we could to make cheerleading available to as many people as possible.”
That he succeeded is undeniable.
US participation rose 11.7 percent in 2016 to total 4.03 million active cheerleaders ages 6 and older, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
“A double-digit increase suggests something big going on,” SFIA President Tom Cove told The Post, especially in light of declining participation rates in football and basketball.
Webb, however, is already positioning Varsity for life after domestic dominance.
“Global cheerleading is in its infancy,” he said. “It should really take off in four to five years.”
In the US, Varsity has used the courts to keep a tight fist on its control of the business.
Last month, after seven years of litigation, Varsity Brands won a Supreme Court ruling against a rival, Star Athletica.
The high court found that Varsity’s cheerleading uniform design, including the ubiquitous chevron, was protectable under US trademark law. Observers say the ruling will keep rivals from stealing away some business.
Webb, and plenty of high fashion groups, applauded the court decision.
Varsity invested heavily in fashion designers to refresh cheerleading’s once-dowdy uniforms, which were once “plain-looking wool, with no performer fabric,” Webb said.
“We were fortunate to win,” said Webb, whom even competitors credit for being cheerleading’s biggest cheerleader.
When not suing rival, Varsity has other means to squash the competition.
Tish Reynolds, who ran Just Briefs, which made a popular cheerleading uniform line, experienced Webb’s power firsthand. Varsity bought her company in 2010.