On Super Bowl Sunday, Americans across the country will gather in front of their televisions and laptops, forgetting for a few brief, shining moments their bitter ideological divides and giving themselves over to one of the cultural events that truly makes America great: the Puppy Bowl. Animal Planet’s most adorable competition airs Sunday, February 2, for the 16th year in a row of delighting football fans and non-fans alike with hours of furry antics.
But how exactly did the Puppy Bowl become the surprisingly elaborate, sponsor-heavy cultural staple it is today? Here are a few things you may not know about the pup-ular television event.
The Puppy Bowl was conceived as something akin to the Yule Log, but for football (and with puppies)
The year 2005, when Jacksonville, Florida, hosted the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles for its first Super Bowl, also marked the birth of the Puppy Bowl. It was designed as counterprogramming to the biggest event in American sports, but the actual concept — tiny puppies cavorting on a mini football field — was, like many great ideas, initially suggested in jest, by Animal Planet executives. As Rolling Stone recounted in 2014:
During a meeting, a suggestion was made that the best defense against the programming juggernaut would be to "point a camera at puppies" on a football field, in a sort of dog version of the televised burning Yule Log that airs every holiday season. Margo Kent, the executive producer for Puppy Bowl I, remembers that "It was always a joke: How do you counter the Super Bowl? Let's just put a box of puppies up there and call it a day. It's not worth trying to go against the Super Bowl."
But that joking suggestion found an audience: Puppy Bowl I, filmed in Silver Spring, Maryland, drew 5.8 million viewers across its 12-hour broadcast, and an annual tradition was born.
The Puppy Bowl scores big for Animal Planet’s ratings — and its advertising dollars
Since that first Puppy Bowl, the event has grown immensely in both scope and viewership, to the extent that it now dominates Animal Planet’s Super Bowl Sunday programming. Where the first Puppy Bowl was a low-concept 12-hour montage of puppies wandering in front of a camera, sans commentary or sponsors, the Puppy Bowl as we know it today is a highly structured and marketed capital-E Event that represents Animal Planet’s biggest annual programming initiative.
Though it was conceived as “counterprogramming” to the big game itself, and is frequently presented as alternative viewing for those who aren’t interested in the Super Bowl, the Puppy Bowl’s initial broadcast each year is in the early afternoon, in the lead-up to the Super Bowl’s broadcast later in the day, positioning it more as supplemental viewing than competition for eyeballs.
In 2018, Animal Planet also debuted a companion program, “The Puppy Bowl Presents: The Dog Bowl”; the one-hour special aimed to spotlight older adoptable dogs, who often get passed over at shelters. It returns this year, airing on February 1 at 8 pm; per People, this year’s 65 participants (divided into Team Goldies and Team Oldies) come from 32 shelters and range in age from 3 to 15.
The animal programming is even spilling over to other channels; also on February 1, the Hallmark Channel is airing “Cat Bowl II,” featuring participants from previous Kitten Bowl halftime shows (more on that below).
Factor in other supplementary Puppy Bowl programming like a pregame show, a “where are they now” special featuring players from Puppy Bowls past, and a Puppy Bowl–themed episode of Animal Planet’s brilliantly mindless series Too Cute!, and the Puppy Bowl accounts for almost an entire day of the network’s programming.
This strategy has paid off in terms of both ratings and sponsorships, and underlines the Puppy Bowl’s evolution from a “what if” lark to a robust television franchise. In its sixth year in 2011, the Puppy Bowl drew more than 9 million viewers over its multiple airings, a benchmark that Animal Planet general manager Rick Holzman characterized as a tipping point for the event, the moment when it “[took] on a life of its own,” and “became part of the pop-culture fabric of the Super Bowl.” Since then, each Puppy Bowl has drawn 10 million or more viewers over its 12-hour block — a fraction of the 110 million-plus who tune in to the Super Bowl each year, but a very healthy pull by cable standards.
That increase in ratings and profile has turned the Puppy Bowl into a sponsorship bonanza in recent years. The Puppy Bowl field, which became the Geico Puppy Bowl Stadium in 2012, is now plastered with brand names both pet-related (Pedigree, Petco) and not so much (Subaru, AT&T). There are plenty of supplementary branding opportunities that take their inspiration from football, like a Dairy Queen Kiss Cam and a Sheba cat food “VIP suite.” And Animal Planet’s strategy of making potential Puppy Bowl sponsors commit to advertising on the network’s other programming has turned the event into a big part of the network’s advertising year.
To keep things feeling fresh (and conveniently allow for even more sponsorship opportunities), the network has also added an ever-increasing number of bells and whistles over the years. One of the event’s better-known features, the kitten halftime show — sorry, make that the ARM & HAMMER™ SLIDE™ Cat Litter Kitty Halftime Show — has been around since the event’s second iteration, in 2006.
Newer flourishes include but aren’t limited to a rotating species of cheerleaders (bunnies inaugurated the role in 2010, and it’s since gone to chickens, pigs, hedgehogs, penguins, Nigerian dwarf goats, and Silkie chickens); a bird “commentator” named Meep that live-“tweets” during the game; a hamster-piloted mini blimp; halftime cameos from animal celebrities such as Keyboard Cat; and refereeing assistance from Shirley the rescue sloth. In 2014, there was even a Puppy Bowl “training camp” hosted on the White House lawn by then-first lady Michelle Obama and first dogs Sunny and Bo.
Yes, there are rules to the game ... sort of
Unlike its human-based rival event, the Puppy Bowl does not happen live. It’s actually filmed several months in advance, using multiple cameras and rotating its furry participants in and out; the footage is then cut down to highlight the cutest and most action-filled moments possible. As longtime Puppy Bowl referee Dan Schachner explained in a 2015 Reddit Ask Me Anything session:
The Puppy Bowl is shot about 3 months in advance. A lot of people don't know this. The reason why it takes so much time is the Puppy Bowl broadcast is a 2 hour event, but it is not a 2 hour event to film - it takes 2 FULL DAYS to film. Reason being, we are trying to showcase as many different puppies as possible, and we want to rotate them in and out, and give them as many chances to have action on the field as possible!
Additionally, there are 17 cameras shooting the action on the field at the same time. You can imagine, 2 days of shooting, 17 cameras, that is hundreds if not thousands of hours of footage that needs to be watched, logged, and edited.
As multi-year Puppy Bowl camera operator Cory Popp told the A.V. Club the same year, “What you see on TV is only the best of the best, but there’s actually like 70 dogs there and you’re never quite sure what they’re going to do. Because they’re puppies, they’re not trained, they’re just doing whatever they want to do. It’s just hoping for the best.”
Over the years, the Puppy Bowl has introduced various new camera angles, such as a water bowl camera (just what it sounds like) and even cameras attached to the chew toys scattered about the field. Peanut butter smeared on the larger (hopefully waterproof) cameras encourages the pups to lick them while in action, and while Schachner is the only person seen onscreen during the bowl, a robust staff of humans work behind the scenes to keep the field mostly free of (on-camera) puppy accidents.
The rules of the Puppy Bowl aren’t too stringent and are mostly loose riffs on existing American football rules. If a puppy drags one of the multiple on-field chew toys across the finish line (on either side), it’s considered a touchdown. Though as Popp recounted to the A.V. Club, it’s more exciting for the observing humans than the participating dogs:
[The people are] screaming and yelling as the dog’s going toward the goal line, and it happens, I don’t know, a hundred times throughout the day where a dog will make it like five yards from the goal line and then drop the toy and start playing with another dog. It’s this big arc of emotion and then it drops because everybody’s really bummed that he didn’t run across the goal line and score a touchdown.
There are also pun-based rulings like “pass inter-fur-ence” and “unnecessary ruffness,” as well as more, er, dog-specific calls like “premature watering of the field.”
As for the participants themselves, there are a few eligibility requirements: They must all be within 12 and 21 weeks of age, well-socialized, and vaccinated. They must also meet certain height and weight restrictions due to the size of the “stadium.”
Since the Puppy Bowl’s inception, one dog has been crowned MVP of each game — though now it changes with each repeat broadcast, depending on online votes from viewers. But it wasn’t until 2015 that actual competition was introduced. Since then, the puppies have been divided into Team Ruff and Team Fluff, with the “highest-scoring” team taking home bragging (wagging?) rights. And starting in 2017, an actual prize has been awarded to the winning team: the “Lombarky Trophy,” a large Petco-branded stuffed toy.
The Puppy Bowl is a high-profile showcase for adoptable animals from across the country
Despite all the spectacle, the Puppy Bowl has stayed true to its tradition of giving a major platform to adoptable dogs and animal shelters. A video on the Puppy Bowl’s website brags that the event is “the biggest game in adoption,” and it’s true that every year the canine participants (there are 96 total this year) come from shelters and rescue organizations around the country, and are all available for adoption. (Same goes for the featured kittens and many of the other animals that appear onscreen during the event — not the penguins, though.) Some of last year’s contestants, for instance, hailed from rescue operations in Costa Rica and Puerto Rico, which was struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria.
Such well-publicized balls of fluff seem to have no trouble finding furever homes. Because the Puppy Bowl is filmed several months before it airs and the participants are well-publicized on the event’s website, generally all Puppy Bowl participants are adopted before or even during the event. If any dogs haven’t been adopted by the time the Puppy Bowl airs, come kickoff they’re likely to go quickly. As Schachner explained in his Reddit AMA:
Literally, it takes MINUTES. As soon as people start watching Puppy Bowl, they can go to AnimalPlanet.com and look up the puppy profile, which will connect you with the shelter or rescue center that has them! And you can be sure that within 5 minutes — you have to act quickly. So what we like to say is "Don't worry if the dog or cat you fell in love with is no longer available — because they are part of litters, and they will probably have brothers or sisters that you can adopt, even if that one star puppy isn't there!
Also of note is that Animal Planet commits to featuring dogs with disabilities in the event’s lineup. Says WUSA9: “Puppy Bowl XVI will also feature five special needs players including Ferris, a three-legged Labrador Retriever mix; two hearing impaired pups, a blind and hearing impaired puppy and one with a cleft palate.”
Animal Planet also works with organizations on real-life adoption events that double as Puppy Bowl promotion: A 2017 New York City event featuring Schachner resulted in 26 animal adoptions, with fees covered by Animal Planet, and similar Puppy Bowl-related events are a common fundraising and promotional opportunity for shelters and rescues.
So while the Puppy Bowl may have morphed from its humble roots into a ratings and branding juggernaut over the years, its intentions have always gone beyond making money for Animal Planet and its sponsors. And as it turns out, when your cause involves adorable puppies, it’s easy to get the message across.
Puppy Bowl XIV airs Sunday, February 2, at 3 pm Eastern on Animal Planet, and will repeat throughout the day. The Dog Bowl airs Saturday, February 1, at 8 pm, also on Animal Planet. If you don’t have a cable login, you can find clips on the Puppy Bowl’s YouTube channel.