February 20, 2024

Puppy Bowl XX: Behind the scenes with the Super Bowl’s adorable cousin

It is frowned upon for NFL players to complain to the referees. But at least they don’t urinate on it.

The same can’t be said for the participants in the Puppy Bowl, Animal Planet’s dog football game that takes place in October but doesn’t air until the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday.

The event’s referee, Dan Schachner, stays prepared for all eventualities by keeping five identical uniforms in his dressing room so he can change if accidents happen. Mr Schachner, 49, admitted he had become lax in issuing fines for “premature lawn watering” since he started calling the game out in 2011.

“I don’t automatically reach for the flag,” he said. “We have a game to play.”

This year’s Puppy Bowl, televised Sunday at 2 p.m. Eastern time, is the 20th edition of the event, a milestone for a program that started as a tongue-in-cheek feed of puppy playtime before evolving into a counterprogramming juggernaut.

The three-hour skirmish over a football-shaped chew toy has been on the air longer than “Grey’s Anatomy.” Animal Planet said last year’s Puppy Bowl “reached” more than 13 million viewers.

Success comes with unique production challenges. The players cannot throw because they do not have opposable thumbs. They fall asleep on the 20 meter line and sometimes try to bathe in the water bowl. They are especially bad at determining when to go for a 2-point conversion.

It takes more than 100 crew members and 200 poop bags to make the puppies look like a football game. “The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade requires just as much coordination,” said Howard Lee, president of Discovery Networks, which owns Animal Planet.

In an interview, Mr Lee described the program as a call for pet adoption, secretly disguised as a football match. According to Animal Planet, all 1,298 dogs that have played in previous Puppy Bowls have been adopted. The event results in a surge of interest in shelters where the puppies take the field, although the puppies featured in the game are usually already adopted by the time it airs.

The 131 members of this year’s lineup were selected through an online casting call this summer and came from more than 70 shelters and rescue centers across the United States. They were all between three and six months old.

As in the NFL, there were many hyped prospects: Levi, a 72-pound Great Dane, was the largest puppy to ever compete in the event. Bark Purdy, a Chihuahua mix, shares a name (and perhaps his agility) with the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers.

In October, the draft picks were transported to a hockey arena in Glens Falls, NY, which was equipped with a 90-foot AstroTurf field. The play was filmed over the course of a week so that the puppies could get plenty of hydration and naps. The producers then edited all the slow periods in the game.

To avoid injuries, smaller breeds such as dachshunds and pugs faced off in the first half, while the huskies and bloodhounds put up a stronger battle in the second half. (In Mr. Schachner’s experience, smaller breeds are more likely to “dodge defenders” and “break tackles.”) Puppies from two teams — Team Ruff and Team Fluff — scored touchdowns by carrying chew toys to both end zones.

Victoria Schade, the regular trainer, puts dogs on the couch when they look overwhelmed. In the 18 years she has worked at the Puppy Bowl, she has perfected her technique for getting the dogs to look up patriotically during the national anthem: dangling treats above their heads.

“Freeze-dried chicken, freeze-dried liver, freeze-dried cheese: it makes for a Puppy Bowl-worthy performance,” Ms. Schade said.

The first Puppy Bowl, which aired in 2005, was more like a pick-up game. Animal Planet’s producers had been asked by the network’s general manager to come up with some kind of counterprogramming for the Super Bowl, said Margo Kent, who was then an executive producer for the network.

The task seemed impossible. “We joked, ‘Why are we working so hard?’” Ms. Kent said. “Let’s just put the puppies in a box and point a camera at them.”

They tried it out on a Discovery soundstage in Silver Spring, Maryland, with a few dozen dogs from local shelters. Cameramen filmed from behind a layer of clear plexiglass, which had to be wiped down regularly because the puppies kept pressing their wet noses against it.

“We couldn’t believe how well it did,” says David Doyle, then vice president of production and development at Animal Planet. The event became the “darling of advertising sales and senior management,” he added. “Suddenly it was about, how can we make money on this cool thing?”

At Puppy Bowl II, advertisements for Subaru lined the stadium. A kitten halftime show was added, but it went wrong when the explosion of confetti cannons caused all the cats to jump out of the screening room, Ms. Kent said. (It was re-shot with the crew hand-strewing the confetti.)

Scorekeeping and uniforms were added in Puppy Bowl XI, and three years later a sloth was introduced as an assistant referee. With each notable addition, the Puppy Bowl also devoted more of its airtime to encouraging viewers to adopt pets, including senior dogs and puppies with special needs.

If the event is good for puppy adoption, it might be even better for Warner Bros. Discovery, one of the biggest and newest giants in the entertainment industry. Last year, Puppy Bowl’s viewership added more than four million additional viewers, according to the network, thanks in part to Discovery’s acquisition of WarnerMedia in 2022.

For the first time, Puppy Bowl XIX was simulcast on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, HBO Max, TBS and Discovery+. “Viewership has gone up mainly because we’ve been getting more attention from all these different platforms,” Mr Lee said.

Animal Planet said it will not share the costs of producing the Puppy Bowl or the advertising revenue it generates. But the program typically has a high return on investment, said Mr. Doyle, who is now an executive vice president at Hearst Media Production. Group. The first Puppy Bowl cost less than $100,000 to produce, he said. “I’m sure it costs five times what we spent on it, or more,” he speculated. “But it probably makes fifty times as much money.”

Puppy Bowl crew members past and present offered several theories for the program’s continued dominance: It has broad appeal across all age groups; it’s easy to watch while making chili. Your preferred team may be eliminated from the NFL playoffs, but it can’t fall short of making the Puppy Bowl.

Then almost all of them returned to the obvious: people really like puppies.

Many viewers are motivated by the Puppy Bowl to pick one out for themselves. Erika Proctor, 42, director of Green Dogs Unleashed, a special needs animal shelter in Troy, Virginia, estimates that on the day of the Puppy Bowl she receives nearly 100 emails with questions about adoptions and training. There will be an increase in applications, she said.

Green Dogs Unleashed, which has sent dogs to the Puppy Bowl for the past decade, is responsible for the costs of transporting the puppies to Glens Falls and housing them. That was a challenge at first, Ms. Proctor said, but it “comes back to us tenfold in the awareness it brings to the land of our special needs animals.”

Those on set for the Puppy Bowl taping don’t necessarily know the winner. Producers film endings in which each team triumphs, and the winner is determined in post-production.

That means Mr. Schachner can’t help the people who message him on social media every year asking for tips on how to bet on the outcome of the game. Other common prop bets involve the point spread of the final score and the age of the MVP (Most Valuable Puppy).

Despite appearances, the producers claim that Puppy Bowl’s glory is earned on the field and not by the human supervisors.

“You have to piece it together to make it a story that’s understandable and fun,” says Joe Boyle, Discovery’s senior vice president of production and development, “but we’re following what actually happened.”

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