Jeff Webb was only 24 when he jumped into building his own business, borrowing startup funds from friends and family.
Decades later, that idea has blossomed into an about $2 billion cheerleading empire. Webb now worries that the economic mobility and culture that rewarded his entrepreneurial spirit is dwindling, and the young people he works with every year will have fewer and fewer opportunities to build their dreams.
“The middle class of the United States built the greatest economy in the history of the world,” said Webb, founder and chairman of Varsity Spirit, which offers educational camps, uniforms, and competitions for cheerleading teams. He credits the Greatest Generation, the GIs who returned from war to go to work and build families and build careers, for forming the large middle class that gave the United States an advantage over other countries.
“And if we lose this large, fluid, affluent middle class, we are going to lose our edge,” he said. “We are going to lose our sense of connectedness, we are going to lose a sense of patriotism, because people don’t feel like they’re being treated fairly, and they don’t feel like they have opportunity for themselves and their family,”
Drive and Spirit
Webb was a yell leader in college, and through that ended up working at a company conducting training camps for high school and college cheerleaders. While he had the idea for a different approach to present the sport, highlighting the athleticism and entertainment aspect of cheerleading, that was too different from what the company was doing.
“So I just decided to give it a try on my own,” Webb said. “I didn’t know I was an entrepreneur at the time. I was just something I wanted to do and I was a bit impatient, frankly.”
He had no idea the turns he’d take, much less the scale of expansion that would ultimately take place. While Webb admits he had a limited vision at first, he had a clear concept and credits that entrepreneurial ethos as a core reason for his venture’s success.
“You’re driving the organization forward, but also along the way having your antennae up, so that you see things you can build on, on that first initiative,” he said.
His focus was to maintain the company culture and promote cheerleading as a sport. But through training and promoting cheerleading competitions, the company also became a premier seller of apparel and equipment (because the uniforms that teams wanted didn’t exist), and has been broadcast on ESPN since 1983 (so people could see the competition championships).
The result is that Varsity ended up “uniquely situated to drive what’s become this global phenomenon in cheerleading,” Webb said.
The nature of Webb’s business means he often meets college students; for instance, 2,000 of them work as instructors and camp administrators every summer.
“So I’m in touch with them and I understand their backgrounds and I’m able to listen to how they view the world and where they’re going and what their challenges are, and the things that are important to them,” Webb said.
While the entrepreneurial spirit among young people hasn’t disappeared, the challenges have become increasingly insurmountable, to the point that they threaten to crush that drive.
“I really became concerned that that opportunity [I had growing up in a middle-class family] was not going to be as available to this generation,” Webb said.
A self-proclaimed news junkie, he had never gotten involved in politics, mostly because building his business had taken most of his time and focus. But over time, Webb saw the growing challenges across society, and much it had to do with the decline of the middle class.
Last year, he decided to get involved.
“I need to find a way so that these young people … how can I make sure that they do have these opportunities? How can I return to them what they have given me? How can I return that support to them?” Webb said. “And the more I looked at what has been happening to the middle class in the past 30 years, the more alarmed I became.”
The importance of the middle is far from new; it’s ancient wisdom, as the Greeks placed huge importance on the “middle,” from cultivating temperance as a virtue to warning that a society that’s either top- or bottom-heavy couldn’t prosper.
A Halted Economy
Webb took a closer look and was dismayed by his findings.
In the past 30 years, the wealth of the middle class has gone down by a third. A huge portion of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, including families making more than $150,000 annually, and this means they aren’t covered for emergencies—as the pandemic has shown. In addition, jobs are being pushed overseas, credit card debt is high, and the people who have been living paycheck to paycheck have sent their kids to colleges with big tuition bills.
In turn, those young people are carrying huge student loan debts and coming out of college underemployed, owning no property, and with bad credit.
“That’s no money for a medical emergency, no extra money for retirement, no money to help take care of an elderly parent, and it’s just frightening,” Webb said. “One thing is certain, we’re all going to have good things and bad things happen to us in life, and not having any kind of nest egg or security to deal with those bad things was very alarming to me.”
And those were Webb’s concerns before the pandemic.
“This crisis is going to have a devastating effect on the middle class,” he said.
Americans who’ve suffered losses in the crisis are just recently getting relief payments, which Webb had advocated for in early March, except now, he’s seen how in reality a good idea gets watered down with bureaucracy and processes. That’s reaffirmed his motivation for getting involved in politics. Last year, he started The New American Populist to give the middle class a platform and get into policy development, help put the right people into office, and share information.
“There are a lot of factors pushing against us, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” Webb said.
In recent weeks, everything has changed for many people.
“Who would have that that in four short weeks, the greatest economy in the world would come to a screeching halt? Who would have thought that?” Webb said.
“You see these long lines, these cars lined up at these food banks in different cities across the country,” Webb said on April 14. “It’s only been, what, five weeks since we really started to bear down on this crisis and start these lockdowns, and already you see thousands of people who don’t have food for their families.
“We are in totally uncharted territory right now; including the Great Depression, we’ve never had a situation like this, first of all because it’s not created just by economic or financial dynamics, it’s because of health,” he said.
The checks going to small businesses to pay their employees aren’t enough, Webb points out, because the fundamental problem is that there’s nothing driving the economy.
“Here’s the big problem: There is no demand,” Webb said, noting that outside of certain sectors such as health care, activity has mostly dried up.
“And there is no demand because everyone is at home … we can give them that money but it’s totally temporary. They’re going to go through that money in a couple of weeks because there is no demand in the economy. Nobody is buying anything except a few things.”
“It remains to be seen how many will come out of this and survive,” Webb said, adding that the unseen costs on mental health are just as important. “The clock is ticking and we have to create demand, and to create demand, people are going to have to feel safe.”
Culture of Optimism
Webb’s concerns go far beyond the economic, and are rooted in culture. The toll on young people denied opportunity at every turn is bad for the morale of the nation as a whole, he says.
Webb’s own business has been all about culture; at 24, he was the oldest person at a company full of college kids in support each other and the mission, and fighting to win. The egalitarian culture that was fostered right from the start has been Webb’s biggest takeaway.
“We are doing something that is very important and has all of this value to young people and to their schools and their communities,” Webb said.
The Varsity camps foster leadership and other skills in the participants, who will then foster the same values when they return to their schools and their communities.
“I think what draws these mostly outgoing, optimistic, and positive people, what drives them is the effect that cheerleading can have on the school and community, and their ability to actually make that happen,” Webb said. That youthful can-do spirit of success and service is something very powerful, Webb said.
And it’s very American. If the middle class is deteriorating, that’s something we risk losing.