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Volume 23 No. 13
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American Kennel Club’s Furman finds furry friends are doggone good for brand growth

ESPN devoted six hours of midday programming on Aug. 24 to canine competition, in partnership with the AKC.
Photo: nick caito / espn images
ESPN devoted six hours of midday programming on Aug. 24 to canine competition, in partnership with the AKC.
Photo: nick caito / espn images
ESPN devoted six hours of midday programming on Aug. 24 to canine competition, in partnership with the AKC.
Photo: nick caito / espn images

The world-class athletes on ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus executed demanding high dives into a 20,000-gallon pool built for the occasion. Their speed and agility impressed even those jaundiced ESPN employees who have produced hundreds of sports events. After the competition, the athletes were toweled off, packed into crates and loaded into the backs of cars.

Call it an updated “Dog Day Afternoon.” More than 40 years after that Al Pacino film, ESPN2 aired six hours of dedicated pooch programming on Aug. 24, two days before International Dog Day. Yes, the network that broadcasts MLB, the NBA and the NFL went completely canine for an entire afternoon. 

The story of how that happened is a textbook study of how a brand with powerful affinities can become a property.

We’ve known Ron Furman since he was selling media and sponsorship packages for the NFL years ago, and for NBC Sports after that. Since June 2018, he’s spearheaded the American Kennel Club’s efforts in combining its heritage with a membership base encompassing 5,200 clubs, thousands of grassroots events, and an annual championship show in which more than 7,000 dogs compete. The NFL is ceaselessly touting its 100th season; at 135 years old, the AKC was around long before the NFL, or airplanes, took off.

Now, we’d be the first to proselytize: Sports have powerful and deep-seated attributes that can be leveraged to effectively market products and services. That should be scrawled indelibly on the blackboard of any sports marketing class.

But sports don’t sleep on the bed with you. 

The AKC likes to point out that the 72 million dog owners in this country outnumber by 25 million those who call themselves avid fans of any one of the four big stick-and-ball leagues. (The NFL weighs in at 47 million, according to Nielsen Scarborough data.)

Maybe that’s like comparing a Dachshund to a Great Dane, but, said Furman, “I could see the passion was here. It just hadn’t been mined.”

Furman has helped to tap into that vein with the creation of AKC Properties, which includes a strong online presence — AKC claims 5 million social media followers — and an OTT network, AKC.TV, that launched last year.

When Furman and the AKC started pitching ESPN in March about carrying dog programming, it was about increasing the percentage of female viewers (AKC events skew around 65% female) and the appeal of what they call “action sports for dogs.” That encompasses the aforementioned dock diving, along with agility competitions and Flyball, a relay race with obstacles and a lot of running and jumping highlights.

ESPN soon saw the Disney crossover potential with dogs and families, and it progressed from the AKC providing content to ESPN staging what turned out to be the largest event its Bristol campus ever held.

Cliff Shoemaker, ESPN’s senior manager of digital programming and acquisitions, is allergic to dogs, but he quickly became a fan of their appeal. “Internally, the more we talked about it, the more support we got,” he said. “That’s the power of dogs.”

At Bristol, there were hundreds of spectators watching around 150 competing canines. The programming block, 2 1/2 hours of which was produced with the AKC, started with a 30-minute digital “pregame show.” ESPN2 led off with an hour of competition from Bristol; an hour of dog features culled from old E:60s and SportsCenters; a dog-themed version of “Always Late with Katie Nolan”; yet another hour of dog competition; followed by Disney’s canine farce “Air Bud,” from 1997.

Photo: nick caito / espn images
Photo: nick caito / espn images
Photo: nick caito / espn images

With a corporate directive to make ESPN’s audience more diverse, Shoemaker was happy that female viewers doubled from 25% to 50% near the end of the afternoon.

“We’ve always said there are very few things closer than the bond between a person and their dog, and people got to watch that play out in a televised competition,’’ said Gina DiNardo, AKC vice president and executive secretary. “ESPN validated everything we felt about our content and how broad our reach is.” 

We aren’t suggesting that “Monday Night Football” will be replaced by “Monday Night French Poodle,” but we’d expect to see more canine competitions on the “Worldwide Leader.” And the connection between human athletes and their dogs is one that also intrigues ESPN.

In fact, the AKC’s demos and passion are intriguing enough that it has agency CSM casting about for non-endemic sponsors.

“Like a sports property, you’ve got your TV, your live events and your digital/social,’’ said CSM vice president Charlie Severn. “Unlike sports, you don’t have a focus on fandom for a particular team or sport. Everyone loves dogs — that’s something marketers should be able to use.’’

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.