When they got their start five years ago, the Detroit Pride Cheerleaders were kind of a joke. Actually, that's literally how they started. Andrea Wilamowski was catching a game with her husband and a Lions executive when the idea crossed her mind.
"My husband was a sponsor of the Lions, and we were friends with one of the executives that worked for them and it started out kind of as a little joke," says Wilamowski. "We sat there and everyone was like 'Why don't we have cheerleaders?' Because it's really boring, you know, the two-minute warning and the places where you'd normally have entertainment, there's nothing. So, as a joke, off the cuff, I just said I would start a team."
So she gathered up some sponsors and struck up some interest and in 2010, she founded the Detroit Pride Cheerleaders. And they were all set to be the Lions' first official cheer squad.
"This executive had said to me, 'If you get the team started, you bring it to me and we'll talk,'" she says. "We got a group of people and businesses interested and really wanting to pursue it, and I went back to the Lions and they said, 'Oh, my God, this is wonderful, but we're not ready yet. Maybe next year.'"
Now the team is heading into its fifth year, and they're still not the Lions' official squad. That doesn't hold them back, though, and they aren't shunned by the franchise in any way. In fact, players act as guest judges during tryouts and often attend the final showdown that takes place at the Fillmore.
"The Lions players appreciate us," Wilamowski says. "They always have been excellent with us. They encourage us to keep doing what we're doing and they appreciate the fact that we're out there helping to support them and the city."
Wilamowski says the franchise supports them, just not with cash, and it's an expensive business to run. Just getting the girls into a game at Ford Field costs the team upwards of $4,000.
"We have to rely on sponsors and our calendar and our look book sales to keep the team going," Wilamowski says. "I didn't start this team with a ton of cash in the bank because it was something we were doing for fun, but then it turned into something very serious right away. We have all of our different sponsors that we do business with, which is very helpful, but what people don't realize is that we purchase our tickets when we go into the games."
Ironically, the girls never sit in the seats those tickets belong to. Instead, they stand on the concourse, shaking hands and taking pictures with fans.
"As soon as the girls walk in, they're smiling for three solid hours," Wilamowski says. "They stand in three-and-a-half inch boots from 10:30 in the morning to 5:30 at night. We go on the concourse and lines form immediately. We separate the girls into different groups, and we put them in different places because if all of the girls stand in one place, there's a massive line that forms all the way down the concourse."
Sure, they get their share of creepy drunks who go for boob-grabs and upskirts, but more often than not, their biggest fans are too young to even contemplate such crudeness.
"I think that the biggest reward is when you see the little girls that are 4 to 10 years old, and the girls will hand them a pom-pom and take a picture and the look on their faces is amazing," Wilamowski says. "To them, these cheerleaders are, with all their rhinestones and sparkles and their shiny poms, they're a hero, they're a princess. It's a really rewarding moment."
Felicia Kollias is entering into her second year as a Detroit Pride Cheerleader and meeting with those miniature fans is one of her biggest rewards. She gushes about those fan interactions, noting it was the biggest surprise of getting to be part of the Detroit Pride.
Kollias works as a receptionist at a hair salon and goes to school full-time for teaching. Cheering with the Detroit Pride takes up a considerable amount of her time, but to her it's worth it.
"We perform outside for every home game," she says. "We don't just cheer. We do dances with the crowd, and there is lots of interaction. Rain or shine, we're outside performing. Because we aren't official cheerleaders, we're able to have more interactions with fans."
Being able to interact with fans is one reason Wilamowski likes the Pride's independence.
"It takes a lot to put together a sanctioned team, and those teams spend most of their time performing," she says. "Eighty percent of our time is spent on fan interaction, and 20 percent is spent performing. If we were to become an official team, it would be the opposite. Now we're able to pick the charities we work with and the events we do; there's a lot less red tape."
Doing charity work is a big part of being a Pride cheerleader. In fact, they're required to make philanthropic appearances and attend community events.
"The girls have a certain amount of charitable appearances that they have to do every year," Wilamowski says. "They do not get paid for them. And they also do four or five community appearances that they have to do a year, and then after that they have the potential for paid opportunities, and we do a lot of appearances throughout the year, not only on game days but on off days, too," she says.
While their schedule wasn't solidified at press time, you can usually find the Pride cheerleaders inside Ford Field during games, but you won't see them there during Monday Night Football due to the high cost of tickets. During that game, they'll perform at halftime at the Fillmore at a special viewing party. Aside from that, fans can keep up with them on Facebook and their official website. — mt