Despite persistent challenges, a half-dozen schools attempt to lift competitive cheer to prestigious heights.

Felecia Mulkey could sense the skepticism in the room. The University of Oregon's head coach of team stunts and gymnastics was keynoting a conference of 250 high school athletic directors in April, explaining to them exactly what team stunts and gymnastics is - or, more accurately, will be.

Rooted in competitive cheer, which emerged from sideline spirit, the new varsity sport at Oregon (the only school to call it "team stunts and gymnastics" so far) will feature student-athletes in numbered uniforms competing against other schools in structured meets. Team and individual stats will be compiled during four compulsory stunting rounds, followed by each team's uniquely choreographed final routine judged for its degree of difficulty and the ability of its performers to "hit" their skills passes and limit their "bobbles."

"It's like floor routine in gymnastics but with 20 people on the floor - all synchronized," Mulkey says. "It has some stunts in it that may look like cheerleading, but without any of the cheerleading stuff."

In fact, Mulkey avoids the word "cheer" whenever possible.

"There is a stigma attached to the word cheer," says Nancy Post, senior women's administrator at Baylor University, which this July became the sixth NCAA school to launch a varsity program in the sport. "You say the word cheer and many of your white male athletics directors, 50 years old, envision the cheerleader uniform, the pom-poms, the megaphones."

That said, Baylor still refers to its new sport as competitive cheer. So do Fairmont State, Morgan State, Quinnipiac and the University of Maryland, which pioneered the varsity movement in 2003. Says Terrapins assistant coach Lura Fleece, a former NFL cheerleader who headed her alma mater's competitive program during its first four seasons in existence, "Eventually we're all going to come to a name that will make sense for what we all do."

"We decided to change the name and the vernacular out here because we wanted the kids to get the respect that they deserve, the sport to get the respect that it deserves, from mainstream sports fans," says Mulkey, who came to Oregon - which lacks a gymnastics program and thus any conflict of interest - from Kennesaw State in Georgia and what she calls a "huge competitive cheer bubble" on the East Coast. "We took steps to keep the athletic portion of competitive cheerleading, but we were adding things, because there are some problems in our sport. You take a two-minute-and-15-second routine performed once a year at a national championship and you can understand why a mainstream sports fan would say, 'This is not a sport.'"

For the NCAA to recognize it as an emerging sport, at least four more institutions will need to create varsity programs or show their intention to do so, with the earliest that such recognition could occur being August 2011. Should it gain "emerging" status, the sport would have 10 years to garner varsity sponsorship interest among a minimum of 40 member schools (or show steady progress in that direction) for the NCAA to stage a championship.

To lend the effort a leg up, Maryland hosted a mid-September strategy summit attended by coaches and administrators representing five of the six existing varsity programs, as well as Ohio State's club team and the varsity program at Azusa State of the NAIA, where a competitive cheer proposal is already in the legislative pipeline. A common rallying cry among committed schools is that the sport, like few others, meets the interests and abilities of young women. They point to statistics released in September by the National Federation of State High School Associations that rank cheerleading the ninth most popular sport among girls with 117,793 participants, a figure that doesn't take into account untold numbers of girls competing for all-star cheerleading clubs. Says Fleece, who runs Spirit Unlimited, a Glen Burnie, Md.-based private competition and camps provider, "I own a company, and I still can't tell you the exact number of all-star cheerleaders in the country."

"I knew of competitive cheer because I was here and we were sponsoring it," says Maryland associate athletic director Keli Cunningham, "but I had no idea how much it was actually out there throughout the country and how big it really was."

It's particularly big in Texas, where Baylor stands to benefit from a deep high school talent pool and robust regional scheduling opportunities in the event the sport finds solid footing at the college level. A poll of BU students taken this spring to gauge gender-equity compliance found that more women expressed interest in competitive cheer than in any other sport (regardless of whether or not Baylor currently sponsors that sport), with twice as many women interested in competitive cheer as in the next non-sponsored sport on the list (swimming and diving). "We just felt like this is an area where opportunities were lacking," says Post.

Still, there are challenges in matching interest with opportunity. Combating the misperception that this is somehow an attempt to make a sport out of sideline spirit is one; facing today's harsh economic realities is another. "I've spoken to a number of administrators who, if they had the finances to do it, they would," Cunningham says. "Finances, I think, are a big hang-up. You're not going to add a sport unless you have to."

Maryland, which now offers 12 scholarships to a competitive cheer roster of 35 student-athletes competing in at least eight events per season (comparable to the minimum schedule allowed by the NCAA for golf), spends roughly a half-million dollars annually on the sport, according to Cunningham. By comparison, Oregon doles out 3.5 scholarships. The Ducks will host meets Feb. 21 and March 7 (tickets are being sold in combo packs with other sports), but much of their budget will be consumed by travel. "Maryland has an opportunity to drive to several events, and we're going to fly East," says Oregon senior women's administrator Reneé Baumgartner, without a hint of resentment. "It's a sport that's affordable. You don't need a dedicated facility. You can roll out mats, practice and roll the mats up. I think that will get administrators' attention across the United States."

Much attention has been focused lately on injury risks posed by basket tosses and other airborne stunts, sowing yet another seed of doubt among the sport's detractors. "What's the Point of Cheerleading?" asked The Wall Street Journal's Hannah Karp in September, citing a National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research estimate that 65 percent of all female catastrophic sports injuries in high school and college occur during cheerleading.

"I think where we're going is a step in the right direction to help curb some of those concerns," says Cunningham. "We have full-time coaches who understand the safety standards coupled with a full-time trainer and a strength-and-conditioning coach who help the athletes transition into skills." Adds Fleece, "We weight train two days a week, condition three days a week and practice four days a week, with an athletic trainer at every practice, so they're really being conditioned as athletes correctly."

One school, at least, is heading in the opposite direction. The University of Connecticut announced this summer that it was taking athleticism out of sideline cheerleading entirely, instead focusing solely on fan interaction and school spirit. In the past, "all women were required to have gymnastics experience, and that really limited the number of people who could try out," says university spokesperson Mike Kirk, pointing out that 68 students vied for spots on this year's team, compared to the typical 50 (of the 15 former UConn cheerleaders who tried out, 12 were retained). "Also, it was unfair, because there was no requirement for men to have gymnastics experience."

The news out of Storrs only further delineates the differences between sideline spirit squads and competition-only teams, according to Fleece, who sees the divide widening in the future. "There's a split, and it's a great split," she says. "One's not more important than the other. They're just different."

"There's no performing for football or basketball fans - no crowd interaction," says Baylor's Post of competitive cheer. "We do not refer to these student-athletes as cheerleaders, because they're not leading anyone. They're competing."

"They're doing round-off full back handsprings and back tucks," adds Baumgartner. "These are very athletic young women. And I think we're going to present this sport so that the stereotype goes away permanently. We have to educate people that there are no pom-poms."

To that end, the Oregon athletic department has produced a 12-page team stunts and gymnastics information guide titled, "It's Time to Put Down the Pom-Poms. . . " Intended to sell university administrators on the sport, it found an audience among Maryland summit attendees and is now offered as a how-to to all schools interested in launching a varsity program. Not that Mulkey needs much help in the sales department. Several high school ADs at the April conference were sufficiently intrigued by her keynote address to send coaches to a class she taught the following week. The sport, by whatever name it ultimately takes, couldn't ask for a better - with all due respect - cheerleader. Says Mulkey, "I'm a firm believer that the skeptics who are out there right now, who still don't understand the sport, are only skeptics because they haven't talked to me yet."

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.