They're called by different names, but they do essentially the same job: entertain the crowds that flock to major league sports stadiums all over the US. Whether football's cheerleaders, basketball's dance teams, or hockey's "ice girls," they have another thing in common too: they live below the poverty line.
Starting with a lawsuit filed by a former Raiderette this January, six lawsuits total have been filed against NFL teams accused of severely violating state and federal labor laws by underpaying, or often not paying at all, their cheerleaders.
None of the teams responded to request for comment. NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy told VICE Sports, "Our office is not involved with the selection, duties or wages of the cheerleaders. We do not have a comment on the suits but are following the proceedings."
Cheerleading may not be taken as seriously as the job Raiders guard Austin Howard received a $30 million contract to do, but you'd think they at least get a middle class salary of $50,000 a year or so. Instead, $50,000 was what the Raiderettes paid for their entire team of 40 cheerleaders during the 2012-2013 season, according to Sharon Vinick, the lead attorney on the Raiderettes case.
Each Oakland Raiders cheerleader, expected to attend nine months of rehearsals three long days a week as well as games, charity appearances, and special events, was offered a lump sum of $1,250 for the season—to be paid in a single check once the season was over.
Lacy T. filed the Raiderettes lawsuit after one season with the cheer squad. She told VICE Sports that she'd been paid fairly as an NBA dancer before that and was shocked when she moved to the NFL and realized the cheerleaders were essentially volunteers.
"When I got there and realized that we weren't going to receive a paycheck until the end of the year and that we weren't going to be paid for rehearsals, it kind of alarmed me," said Lacy T., whose last name is not used in the legal complaint.
As a dancer with the NBA's Golden State Warriors in 2010, Lacy had been paid $10 an hour for all practices and events, receiving a paycheck every two weeks during the season. They also reimbursed expenses. She thought that was standard practice for a major league dance or cheerleading team. She was wrong.
"I have a close friend in Texas who has danced for four teams in the NBA total, and said the Warriors were the only team that paid her," Lacy told VICE Sports. "The team she's on now, she gets paid like $60 a game for only some games. I was shocked to hear that."
What shocked Lacy enough to file a lawsuit appears to be the norm. In an industry where teams pull billions in revenue and even the lowest-level bench scrubs make six figures, cheerleaders work for free.
That includes more than just games. Lacy told VICE Sports that Raiderettes not only don't see any of the proceeds from sales of their annual swimsuit calendar, they are also expected to pay for their own transportation to get to the shoots.
And mandatory expenses stack up all season long. Raiderettes, according to the lawsuit, are expected to pay all of their own travel expenses for mandatory special events and appearances. They are required to provide equipment, like yoga mats, that they can be fined for forgetting to bring to practice. And the Raiders even tell them which hairdressers they have to see (another out-of-pocket expense, naturally).
A suit filed by the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad is rife with horror stories of sexual harassment, including being auctioned off slave-like for lap rides at golf tournaments and getting groped at events like "The Man Show" where they were required to walk through crowds in bikinis.
But maybe the most disturbing part of the Jills' suit is allegations that the NFL's Buffalo Bills profit from appearance fees and other promotional materials they require the cheerleaders to do, but don't pay them a cent of the money. One Jills plaintiff, Maria P., was paid a whopping $105 for a year in which she estimated working nearly 900 hours.
Is this football, or indentured servitude?
Whatever it is, it's not just football. VICE Sports interviewed one of the hockey's illustrious "ice girls," who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
"I'm glad the [NFL] girls are standing up for themselves and their rights. Unfortunately, public sentiment is that these girls are whining, but from experience, I agree with them one hundred percent," said the ice girl, who worked for a well-known NHL team in a major urban area for two years from 2011 to 2013.
"It's impossible to survive on wages from being an ice girl," she said, "Even if an ice girl worked three games a week, plus two events (which is more than the typical schedule), she would only be making $250 per week, which is $1000 per month on average for an 8 month season."
She told VICE Sports that the NHL routinely violates labor law: not only are the ice girls expected to work more than seven hours in often freezing conditions for a flat rate of $50, they are not allowed breaks when working events. She said the male ice crew for her team was paid an hourly wage, though she never found out how much.
At the heart of the issue is labor law, but the fight for wages in cheerleading is also about gender parity.
This April, President Obama signed an order to prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of gender as part of Equal Pay Day. The White House issued a statement saying, "Women in particular are too often on the receiving end of subtle or overt penalties for even mentioning their pay."
According to a study by the American Association of University Women, the gender pay gap grows with age. A woman under 35 generally makes about 90 percent of what a man in her same field does, but as she gets older that rate lowers to 75 percent.
It's tough to compare, say, an NBA dancer with a Lebron or a LaMarcus. But what about an NBA mascot, whose job it is to also dance around in a little costume and do hundreds of charity appearances per year?
VICE Sports spoke with a male professional mascot who also asked to remain anonymous.
"Mascots make between $40,000 and $200,000 based on their market and longevity," he said. "I don't get into specifics with a lot of the guys, but I do know a couple in that entry level range and I know several who are north of $100k. I have been around forever, so I am on the higher end of the spectrum."
Most mascots are full-time employees of their respective teams, he said, which may explain some of the pay disparity. There's typically one mascot (often male) whereas there can be as many as 50 cheerleaders or dancers associated with any given team.
"There are very few options for women who like to dance and are in their 20's, so teams know they can always find someone," the mascot told VICE Sports, "I don't think I have ever met a NBA dancer who does it for the money, they do it to perform."
But Lacy told VICE Sports that the love of performing is exactly why professional sports leagues should offer fair wages to cheerleaders and dancers.
"Mainly, they're taking advantage of our dreams. From middle school I always dreamed of being a professional dancer or cheerleader," said Lacy, "They take advantage of the fact that so many girls want to do it, because they know another girl is willing to come in right behind you."
Mary Emily O'Hara writes for VICE News. Follow her @maryemilyohara.