This Sunday on NBC, the Philadelphia Eagles will face off against the New England Patriots. But Super Bowl LII isn’t the only high-profile sporting event that day—just a few channels away on Animal Planet, Team Ruff is set to go head to head with Team Fluff for Puppy Bowl XIV.
Like its human-centric counterpart, the Puppy Bowl is big business for the network. It’s the largest non-sports TV event on Super Bowl Sunday. The single telecast, which begins at 3 p.m., raked in 2.5 million viewers last year—it’s then repeated more or less on loop for the next twelve hours like a gently drooling screensaver.
Those numbers may be paltry compared to the actual Super Bowl, with its 111.9 million fans—but they’re triumphant compared to pretty much everything else.
“It’s the biggest event of the year,” says Ben Price, President of Ad Sales for Discovery Communications. “It’s been growing every year since it started, and this year will be a record revenue growth.”
The Puppy Bowl kicked off in 2005 as a simple concept. “It was always a joke,” Margo Kent, executive producer for Puppy Bowl I told Rolling Stone. “How do you counter the Super Bowl? Let’s just put a box of puppies up there and call it a day.”
But it worked: the first year, 638,000 viewers were watching as a puppy named Riley had the bowl’s first “Unsportsmanlike Delay of Game penalty” (he peed on the field). As a testament to the Puppy Bowl’s success, one only needs to look to the many zoological copycats: in 2014, the Hallmark Channel launched the Kitten Bowl (featuring kittens); the same year, Nat Geo Wild countered with the Fish Bowl (featuring fish).
The basic premise, rife with sponsorship opportunities, has remained more or less the same, but the logistical complexity has grown many times over. Today, there are “teams,” and rules, and an ever-rotating cast of guest-animal cheerleaders. (XIV’s squad is an inter-species duckling-bunny-piglet mélange.) This year, there’s a new-and-improved bone-shaped stadium; now the end-zone pylons have Go-Pros. At its core, though, it’s still dogs on a miniature 19×10 football field (brought to you by Geico). They are still a little bit confused about why they are there.
The Puppy Bowl draft begins in June. The first step is a “massive casting blast” to shelters across the country asking for headshots from eligible baby dogs, 12-22 weeks at the time of the shoot date. Most applicants already have headshots, which shelters take hoping to boost their chances of getting adopted. Then, resumes in hand, showrunner Simon Morris and the casting department begin the hard work of puppy selection.
“It’s an amazing-slash-hard task, because you kind of want to say yes to all of them,” Morris says. “I mean, they’re all obviously cute.” The final contestants are chosen to reflect a “range of sizes, of fluffinesses, of breed mixes” Morris says. This year they represent 48 shelters from 26 states plus Mexico—Mango, a Staffordshire-Chihuahua mix, is the Bowl’s first international competitor.
If, at home and lonely, you see a dog you like in the Puppy Bowl, well, I am sorry to tell you: she’s probably taken. By the day of the February broadcast, almost all of the competitors have been adopted, some of them, like Mango, scooped up by Puppy Bowl employees. But the shelters they represent have plenty of other, adoptable dogs—lookalike littermates, even—who are available. And so, for shelters, Morris says, the money transporting a pup from Florida, or California, or Portland, Maine is money well-spent.
But if the puppies get the glory, the event mechanics are dependent on a robust human staff. There are 60 full-time employees from Discovery Studios, plus the network’s in-house production studio the week of the shoot, and that’s not counting the on-site vet, or the reps from the Humane Association, or the puppy handlers, or the brigade of volunteers. And beyond that, the Bowl also employs a class of professionalized animals, who specialize, primarily, in being themselves.
“The thing I love the most each year is coming up with what I call new ‘ancillary animals’” says Morris, who comes from a background in human-centric reality TV. This year, Jokgu the piano playing chicken will peck out the National Anthem (“definitely a first for us,” Morris says). A pair of YouTube-famous cats, Prince Michael and Phil, of Aaron’s Animals, will perform at Kitty Half-Time as “KittenSync,” in an homage to early Justin Timberlake. (In true Puppy Bowl fashion, their hit is “Meow Meow Meow.”) The assistant referee is a rescue sloth named Shirley, who is in fact so professional she once appeared on Jimmy Fallon.
“We draw the distinction,” Morris explains, between the shelter puppies and the “specialist animals” recruited for their specific skills and show-business experience. As in actual football, payment is reserved for the pros.
What’s next for the Puppy Bowl organizers? In advance of Sunday’s event, Animal Planet will run their first-ever Dog Bowl on Saturday, a one-hour game for canines of a certain age. “It was in really response to so many of the shelters talking about how it’s so much harder to get adult and senior dogs adopted,” says Morris. The Dog Bowl doesn’t yet command Puppy Bowl ad dollars, Price says—it’s an unknown quantity, we live in a culture of youth—but it does boast multiple celebrity dog guests, including Instagram-famous Manny the Frenchy (a French bull dog) and Mervin the Chihuahua (a chihuahua). Despite their expertise, both Manny and Mervin will be donating their time.