The 2017 NFL season kicks off next week, and you know what that means. Yes, huge men in tight pants bumping into each other, but also: Cheerleaders! But just like the game has progressed a great deal since the days of leather helmets and no forward passes, the current NFL cheerleaders have come a long way since their humble beginnings. So here’s a visual history of the hard-working women who help entertain football fans on game day. It’ll give you plenty to root for, even if you’re a Jets fan.
The Baltimore Colts became the first NFL team to have cheerleaders. They debuted in 1954 as part of the Baltimore Colts Marching Band.
Other NFL teams began to add their own cheerleading teams, in various forms. In 1960, the Dallas Cowboys launched a coed cheer group made up of local high school students. Its name? The CowBelles & Beaux.
In the early days of NFL cheerleading, most squads had pompoms. And most of those pompoms were gigantic.
Throughout the ’60s, NFL cheerleaders resembled high school cheerleaders. Some of them were high school cheerleaders.
In 1970, the Washington Redskinettes cheered on their Redskins in Native American-style headbands and long pigtails. Probably not the best look, in retrospect.
But it got worse. The next year, the Redskinettes added feathers.
As legend has it, the famous Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were inspired by a busty, scantily clad stripper named Bubbles Cash, who caused a stir in the crowd at a Falcons-Cowboys game in 1967 when she walked down a staircase on the 50-yard line carrying cotton candy in each hand.
Cowboys GM Tex Schramm took notice and was motivated to form a cheerleading squad dressed similar to Cash…
By 1972, the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders were comprised of women who were attractive, exceptionally athletic and talented as performers. They dressed in more revealing uniforms than other team’s cheerleaders, and their routines were based less on traditional acrobatics and more on modern dance.
Former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders include actresses Jill Marie Jones and Sarah Shahi, model/actress/sportscaster Bonnie-Jill Laflin and dancer/reality star Melissa Rycroft.
You may recognize Shahi from her roles in TV shows like Fairly Legal, Person of Interest and The L Word.
Other famous former NFL cheerleaders include Teri Hatcher (49ers), Stacy Keibler (Ravens), Charisma Carpenter (Chargers), Lisa Guerrero (Rams), Tiffany Fallon (Falcons) and Kiana Tom (Raiders).
In the 1980s, many NFL cheerleading squads moved to leotards. And big pompoms. And big hair. Hey, it was the ’80s.
In 1988, the Green Bay Packers eliminated their cheerleaders. These days the Packers use cheerleaders from the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay and St. Norbert College.
The Packers are one of six NFL teams that do not currently have cheerleaders. The other five teams are the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills.
What’s that—you thought the Bills had cheerleaders? From 1966 to 2013, the Bills endorsed the independent Buffalo Jills. But when several cheerleaders sued the Jills and the Bills, the Jills suspended operations.
Speaking of non-official cheerleading teams, Cleveland has the Cleveland Spirit Cheerleaders, created in 2012.
And the New York Giants are supported unofficially by the Gotham City Cheerleaders, aka the New York Unofficials, aka the Unofficial Dancers of the New York Giants, aka Gotham’s Team Blue Army Dancers.
The Detroit Pride Cheerleaders were organized in 2010 to support the Lions in an unofficial capacity. They could not use the Lions logos.
But starting in 2016, the Lions endorsed an official cheer squad, appropriately named the Detroit Lions Cheerleaders.
In 1992 the NFL created the Pro Bowl Cheerleaders. One cheerleader from each NFL cheer team is selected to represent her franchise at the NFL Pro Bowl.
Which might be the best reason to continue playing the Pro Bowl…
No NFL cheerleading squad performs at away games.
But when a team makes the Super Bowl, it typically bring its cheerleaders to the game.
Super Bowl XLV in February 2011 between the Steelers and the Packers was the first Super Bowl that featured no cheerleaders.
In 2003, at the inaugural game at Lincoln Financial Field, the Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleaders unveiled uniforms designed by Vera Wang, becoming the first squad to be outfitted by a world-famous designer.
Ten years later, in 2013, the Eagles doubled down on Wang, debuting new uniforms by her that featured a sleeker look and more midnight green. Wang also made the squad a custom black sparkle sneaker to wear with their uniforms.
Recently there have been several lawsuits filed by cheerleaders against their NFL teams. In January of 2016, the New York Jets agreed to pay cheerleaders nearly $324,000 to settle claims filed by a Flight Crew member that she and other cheerleaders were paid less than minimum wage.
In the past few years, the Raiders, Buccaneers, Bills and Bengals faced similar suits. Most cases have gone the cheerleaders’ way.
In March of 2015, the Buccaneers settled with cheerleaders for $825,000. And in October of 2015, the Bengals agreed to pay cheerleaders $255,000 to end a lawsuit over wages.
The NFL, a tax-exempt organization, brings in about $9 billion in revenue annually and hopes to bring in $25 billion per year by 2027.
Yet many NFL teams pay their cheerleaders around $150 per home game.
In addition to their work on game day and in their communities throughout the year, NFL cheerleaders regularly perform overseas for the United States Armed Forces in USO tours.
They’ve performed for and met troops in places like Korea, Bosnia and Iraq. So the next time you see them at a game or catch them on your flat-screen TV, appreciate them for being awesome, not just looking awesome!