Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl has grown into a big dog in pop culture

Just as the Super Bowl started out as a fairly small event and has now exploded into a global marketing phenomenon — and almost an unofficial holiday in America — so, too, has Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl grown into a commercial powerhouse of Great Dane size. The first airing of the Puppy Bowl in 2005 was intended as counter-programming to the Super Bowl, and was a pretty quiet, relatively low-key affair — almost ambient programming, just puppies at play, accompanied by some calming music. But, just as you can often tell how large a puppy will get by the size of its paws, even back then you could tell it had big potential for popularity growth.

Over the years, more elements were added, and the referee — originally there basically just to clean up after poopy offenders — began inserting himself into the proceedings more (as has been done in the NFL, some might argue) and has become an anticipated character in his own right (Dan Schachner returns as the ref this year). More animals were added — cat and other pet lovers were appeased with the addition of a “kitty halftime show,” and last year hamsters began aerial coverage of the festivities in a little blimp, and there were bunny cheerleaders. Meep the Bird began tweeting the action on Twitter (and will do so again this year).

As the years went on, sponsors also took notice of Puppy Bowl’s ratings. The first Puppy Bowl field was pretty sparse, but it is now — as is the case with real sports arenas — peppered with ads. In fact, for this year’s Puppy Bowl IX, GEICO has actually purchased the naming rights to the Puppy Bowl stadium, and you will see ads in the stadium for the upcoming movie Despicable Me 2 and many other products.

And the event continues to grow. Other changes for Puppy Bowl IX this year that you will see, based on some footage that I’ve seen, will include the addition of hedgehog cheerleaders. This year the puppies will even get to rest their tired little butts in a special puppy hot tub (bet the old-school Puppy Bowl vets are envious of that!). Among the more distracting addition, though, may be the placement of some Animal Planet personalities into the mix. This is akin to how networks that carry the Super Bowl will often “just happen” to catch shots of actors from their hit series in the stands enjoying the game. Likewise, in the Puppy Bowl this year, you’ll notice the likes of Turtleman, people from Finding Bigfoot and other Animal Planet folks occasionally being cut away to and cheering on the canine competitors or otherwise offering some frankly unnecessary commentary (this really makes the loss of former announcer Harry Kalas stand out even more).

It might be only a matter of time before we have a Media Day for Puppy Bowl, or a major celebrity performing at its halftime. Familiar elements will be returning in Puppy Bowl IX, such as the Kitty Halftime Show, the water bowl cam, the kiss cam, the hamster blimp. But in the end, even with all the returning glitter and whatever new elements the network may come up with, it ultimately still does come down to the puppies. And the lineup for Puppy Bowl IX, incorporating 63 pups from shelters and rescue organizations across the country, is as cute as ever (a number of Catahoula mixes this year). Leading up to Puppy Bowl, you can watch some of the pups playing, snoozing and pooping behind the scenes in the Puppy Bowl locker room via a live stream.

I’m going to to make my prediction here and say that Sally — the basset/dachshund mix who is just coming off a four-game suspension for stealing slippers — will be the game’s MVP (Most Valuable Puppy). If nothing else, from the clips I’ve seen, she should be one of the most entertaining to watch. But, as always, all the pups are gamers.

And one of these years, Animal Planet should bring back some of the original dogs from Puppy Bowl I for a sort of “old-timers day,” so they can look at how big the game they started has become.

Puppy Bowl IX airs on Animal Planet Feb. 3 starting at 3pm ET/PT. It airs two hours and repeats until 3am.


Photos: Animal Planet/Keith Barraclough