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On March 26-28, 2021 the American Kennel Club held the 24th National Agility Championship (NAC) in Tulsa, Oklahoma after previously cancelling the 2020 NAC. The event was closed to the public due to COVID concerns. Sarah Fernandezlopez and I did not attend as we did not have a dog qualified for the event (our puppies have just turned two) but I think it’s unlikely we would have attended in any case due to COVID. Without Sarah on site, we decided not to offer the popular “Before and After” experience for people this year. Along with many other competitors, 3-time NAC and PNAC Sarah Baker (our sponsored athlete) opted to stay home this year due to COVID, while Jennifer Crank (our co-instructor and podcast co-host) was able to get the COVID vaccine before the event and decided to compete. Our Bad Dog Agility VIP members were split, with some qualifiers staying at home while others competed at the event. You can view the protocols the AKC established for the event here, which included daily temperature checks, as well as a self-declaration. I plan to address COVID and the tensions it has created in the agility community in a separate article. ADDENDUM 4/17/21 You can read this article here: Has Covid-19 Broken the Agility Community?
At the end of day one, Ms. Christine Bishop was notified that she had been exposed to a COVID positive individual 6 days prior and was replaced by Mr. Randy Capsel for the remainder of the event. She subsequently tested negative. Mr. Windle Ewing, Mr. Darryl Warren, Mr. Dan Wolfson, Mr. Tim Pinneri, and Mr. Tim Verrelli were the other judges at the event, and Mr. Verrelli was the course designer and judge for the Finals. We loved the course design so much, we had Mr. Verrelli on the BDA Podcast, which you can listen to here.
ADDENDUM 4/9/21: The AKC brought in Mike Padgett to care for the dirt surface and based on many comments from competitors, he did a great job. Dirt can be tricky, sometimes too deep and soft and other times too hard and slick.
Finals Results for Preferred
The 4” height class was won by Chris Sanks and Papillon Nitro (Score 95, Time 42.636). This was an all-Papillon class and the only Finals class with only one breed. Nitro was the top seed going into the Finals and beat Andrea Samuels and Fortune who made it to the Finals through the Challengers round (Score 95, Time 43.713). However, no dog ran clean, so while Nitro won the class, they were not awarded the PNAC title.
The 8” height class was won by Abbey Beasley and Shetland Sheepdog Dreamer (39.981). Top seed Cassie Schmidt and Poodle Bliss had the speed to win, but a slip in the dirt on the hard turn into the weave pole entry knocked them out of the running.
The 12” height class was won by Amanda Edstrom and Border Collie Jive (36.782), who narrowly beat out Brenda Kelly and Border Collie Deja Vu. Brenda and Deja Vu had made it to the Finals through the Challengers round (36.913).
The 16” height class was won by Paulena Renee Simpson and Border Collie Graphite (37.528) with second place going to Abby Peach and Border Collie Usher (38.307).
The 20” height class was won by Hayley Mack and All-American Dog Strider (43.077). Strider had the only clean run in the class and was the only All-American Dog Champion at this year’s event.
Finals Results for Regular
The 12” height class was won by Beth Mathews-Bradshaw and Manchester Terrier Prix (43.648). Prix posted the only clean run in the class of 10 dogs, capturing the win.
The 16” height class was won by Jennifer Crank and Border Collie P!nk with the fastest time of all heights at the event (33.278). This is the second NAC title for the duo, as they also won in 2018. Jennifer Crank is also our podcast co-host and co-instructor for our Bad Dog Agility VIP program. She also placed 3rd with Shetland Sheepdog Swift (36.491), who ran early in the order and managed a clean run with some bobbles that Jennifer was able to smooth out with P!nk, who beat out defending champion Naci Berkoz and Border Collie Annie (35.288) to win the title.
The 20” height class was won by Jessica Ajoux and Border Collie Hallelujah (33.462), beating Amber McCune and Border Collie Howie (37.380). Hallelujah came into the Finals as the top seed and joined P!nk as the only two dogs to break 34 seconds.
The 24” height class was won by Amber McCune and Border Collie Kaboom (38.070). Amber had an outstanding weekend as she also took second place with Flat-Coated Retriever Granite (41.581). Since the finals were reverse-seeded and Kaboom was seeded higher, Amber ran Granite first, made it to the “hot seat” and then bumped Granite off the hot seat with Kaboom!
The 24”C height class was won by Soshana Dos and Border Collie Knack (36.369) who defeated second seeded Peter Cinotto with Border Collie Rascal (44.597). Just 16 dogs were entered in the 24C height, with 5 making the Finals plus the Challengers winner. The Challenger round had just 2 dogs in this class.
You can watch each of the winning runs here: https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/sports/2021-akc-national-agility-championship-winners/
The Livestream and ESPN2 Broadcast
I watched everything on the livestream as well as the ESPN2 broadcast of the Finals. The Challengers round for both preferred and regular classes was livestreamed by AKC.TV without any commentary. The Preferred Finals was also livestreamed on Sunday but not included in the ESPN2 broadcast a few days later, which featured only the Regular class Finals.
4 Legged Flix provided personal videos for competitors from all three days, but the coverage of the Finals (both Preferred and Regular) was done by the ESPN crew. Here are my thoughts (which are my own, and not Sarah’s or Jennifer’s):
- TV Ratings for the ESPN2 broadcast are not yet available. I don’t expect the same viewership that FOX Sports draws for Westminster, which topped 1.6 million in 2019. I will update this section with the ratings when they become available. Update 4/8/21: Here is a link to some ratings data from March 31, and if anyone knows how to explain it to me (or calculate viewership #), please email me at email@example.com: http://www.showbuzzdaily.com/articles/showbuzzdailys-top-150-wednesday-cable-originals-network-finals-3-31-2021.html
- I understand why the Preferred Finalists were not included on the ESPN2 broadcast as there was not enough time given to the event (2 hours), but many people were understandably disappointed with this.
- We had the results and running order in hand for the ESPN2 broadcast, and we saw that Howard Carr and Papillon Pink were not the first team on the line! Instead they were one of ten teams that made the Regular class Finals but were cut from the ESPN2 broadcast. From the competitor’s standpoint, this is an absolute travesty, as the possibility of appearing on TV is part of the incentive for entering the event. ESPN chose to exclude the bottom finishers in nearly every height, except for 24” and 24C, which had 6 teams each.
- Shockingly, ESPN cut out the 2nd and 3rd seeded dogs from the Finals. The finals are run in reverse order by score and team, so as you get toward the last dogs, you are generally moving from slower to faster, so there is a lot of drama value in watching the last few dogs in each height, especially with a current leader “on the hot seat” awaiting their fate. To be the 2nd or 3rd seed in a major national event is an amazing accomplishment—but these dogs (Mogly and Shiver) never made it to national television.
- Here are the ten teams who were in the Finals but not shown on TV. I think that unless a dog poops, pees, or attacks something in the ring, they should be included in the broadcast:
- Howard Carr and Pink (8″ Papillon)
- Tammie Gigstad and Maui (12″ Poodle)
- Antonia Rotelle and Dodge (12″ Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)
- David Yaste and Mollie (16″ Miniature American Shepherd)
- Roger O’Sullivan and Trinity (16″ Border Collie)
- Estelle Robinson and Brodie (16″ Rat Terrier)
- Jessica Ajoux and Bailey (20″ German Shorthaired Pointer)
- Chelsea Wood and Zim (20″ Australian Shepherd)
- Sarah Straub and Mogly (20″ Border Collie)
- Nikki Hall and Shiver (20″ Border Collie)
- Did anyone else notice the infographic that had a section for “Non-AKC Awards?
- Speaking of USDAA, did anyone notice the photos used in the segment on the history of the sport?
- The camera work was awful. The ESPN crew did a poor job of following the action, especially during the livestream coverage of the Preferred Finals. The ESPN2 broadcast was actually better because they were able to do some editing to fix their mistakes from the livestream. Viewers saw several empty tunnels because the switches were too slow, and there were almost no stretches with the both handler and dog in the frame together. The producer favored tight shots on the dog, which are better suited for slow motion replays. As AKC Director Carrie DeYoung pointed out to Sarah, no one wants to watch a football game with the camera zoomed in tight on the ball. Think about a tennis match. Don’t zoom in on the ball. The audience needs a wider view to enjoy and understand the sport, because it’s a sport, first and foremost. It’s impossible to grasp the course because you’re switching views every few seconds.
- The weave pole view should not be limited to a straight on approach, as you need a side view to see if the dog is weaving correctly, and to appreciate the physical effort that is expended. I’d use the side view in the broadcast, with a straight on approach for slow motion instant replays.
- The broadcast should be aware of the potential off courses or faults and be prepared to highlight them in replays, or at least show them in a wider view. It’s the difference between following a run and a pass in a football game.
- ESPN will be compared to FOX, and ESPN comes out looking really bad. FOX struggled the first year or two but constantly improved their broadcasts, so hopefully ESPN will do that as well, especially because they have a 5 year deal with AKC to cover NAC, the Invitational, and the Premier Cup as well. That’s a lot of chances to improve in order to grow your viewing audience. People who start to follow the sport will want to learn the rules and invest in the skill aspect as well as the drama of who will win, and ESPN did not build the broadcast around either of these two things, instead opting for a “dogs are cute” direction.
- Understanding the different crosses is key to understanding agility and why it’s hard and having a text definition on the screen is not helpful. There should be a pre-taped demo or video breakdown of competitors in action, showing each type of cross and why they’re used or risky, and this should be done at the beginning of the broadcast.
- Is grey the best color for Finalists shirts? Seems a little bland but maybe it’s better for the broadcast?
- The background noise from the arena and ring itself was too loud, with barking dogs outside of the ring often drowning out the commentary provided by agility commentator Terry Simons and ESPN commentator Carolyn Manno.
- I loved the color coordination between Carolyn and Terry, and P!nk was indeed the big winner.
- Speaking of commentary, Terry and Carolyn used the Preferred Finals as warm up for the Regular Finals, and Carolyn made some comments on the livestream (not ESPN2) about Preferred dogs that people found insulting. As I discuss in our podcast with judge Tim Verrelli, I’m not holding this against her, as she depends on Terry and the AKC for information about a sport she’s never competed in and probably never seen. Sarah pointed out that AKC has published the following on their website: “AKC Preferred Agility allows dogs to jump one height lower than the regular jump height division and it also gives them five extra seconds to complete the course. The program is great for seniors or dogs that have suffered injuries.” Otherwise, she did an excellent job introducing dogs, keeping track of the current leader, and giving background information on the dogs as they stepped to the line. Carolyn is a wonderful upgrade from Justin Kutcher at FOX, who worked alongside Terry at Westminster for several years until he was replaced last year.
- Sideline reporter Toni Collins is an ESPN anchor and she had a nice debut as the post-run interviewer of the winners, taking on the same role that FOX’s Jennifer Hale has at Westminster. Toni said all the right things in an ESPN article before the competition like “I call them athletes because they are athletes.” Now she’ll need to back it up by learning enough about the sport (or at least, the finals course) to ask more sports-specific or course-specific questions of the winners.
- Terry Simons is an agility competitor and former winner of the Preferred NAC himself with a Toller (ESPN played part of his winning run on the broadcast). He definitely knows agility and he’s at his best when he’s more technical and less of a cheerleader. I’d like to hear more facts dropped into the broadcast, like # of dogs entered, the percentage that makes the Finals, how they’re reverse seeded, how dogs qualify for the event, what are the popular and rare breeds in the sport, and more. I wanted a quick talk or some analysis of the wrap choice at the end of the course, and more build up toward each winner. Of course, this was hard to do in the 20” class as ESPN simply cut out two of the last three dogs, eliminating a lot of the drama.
- Consider talking to the judge briefly before the start of the event, like an interview with Toni Collins, with thoughts on the course and potential problem spots to watch.
- I’d also like to see Carrie DeYoung, Director of AKC Agility, identified on camera. If the AKC is the rock, and agility competitors are the hard place, then she deserves some credit for maneuvering between these two sometimes warring factions.
- The AKC needs a way to utilize instant replay to make sure calls are correct, scores are recorded properly, and the right dogs win, especially because invitations to the Premier Cup can be earned at NAC. I would love to see some slow motion replays of the teeter catching a fly off, for example, as that would create some drama akin to whether or not an athlete stayed inbounds during a play.
- ESPN did a nice piece on Keeya Steel, a competitor who trains and trials while dealing with Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS).
- ESPN also highlighted two junior handlers in a segment, Kaylee Cundiff and David Frasca.
- I love that while Jennifer Crank and Jessica Ajoux won the 16” and 20” heights, respectively, they made mistakes with the other dogs they ran in the Finals before their winning runs. In that sense, the course was challenging enough to give them serious problems but ultimately still conquerable. Addendum 4/13/21: A reader notes that running multiple dogs in the Finals “gives Jennifer and Jessica (as well as Amber McCune) a huge advantage.” I think this CAN be true, especially if a handler intentionally uses the first dog as a test run and both dogs are similar in speed. However, it can also be a huge disadvantage as the handlers may have to walk two different plans in one walk through, split their visualization time between dogs, second guess their plan after running the first dog, and deal with strong emotions after their first run (especially if it went poorly). The net effect (advantage or disadvantage) will depend on each individual team.
- Please get rid of the 24C class. It’s a remnant of an archaic way of picking the FCI Agility World Championship team. It’s inherently unfair and creates more problems than it solves. As an add-on, make all your team selection spots for both AWC and the European Open “automatic” and not “coach’s choice” in order to eliminate any prejudice or bias—there’s enough of that in the non-agility world. Team members should all qualify at the same event, emphasizing both fairness and equal opportunity. Agility is a timed sport, not a sport of opinion…
- …speaking of opinions, I think the winner of the Finals should be awarded the NAC or PNAC title even if they did not run clean. If every dog is eliminated, then the entire class should be re-run. That would create a very rare and dramatic Finals! Imagine the buzz…
Social Media Buzz
While Bad Dog Agility’s post of Jennifer and P!nk’s winning run went viral on Facebook with several hundred thousand views and over 1,000 shares, there was little buzz elsewhere, which makes sense given the complete lack of social media effort by ESPN. ESPN did not write a single article about the event, and they own ESPN.com, a sports news website. They did not share any of the runs on social media, unlike Westminster, where so many runs and story lines went viral. Just last week, the NCAA used Rudy the Bulldog’s fantastic Westminster run to rep the Gonzaga Bulldogs at the Men’s Basketball Final Four!
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 3, 2021
The AKC posted each of the winning runs from the regular class, but they received very few views on twitter because no one follows the AKC. You definitely want people live tweeting your sport’s events, as that will boost viewership. Still, here’s a few tweets for you:
Same Terry! Can’t wait 🐾 https://t.co/6Ag3MlMyfq
— Carolyn Manno (@carolynmanno) March 26, 2021
me: why is ESPN2 showing dog agility competitions
me 5 minutes later: why isn't ESPN2 ONLY showing dog agility competitions
— RossWB (@RossWB) March 23, 2020
I can actually understand why folks like sport when I watch dog agility trials.
— ImogenCassidy (@ImogenWrites) April 5, 2021
We've reached the "dog agility is the spectator sport we never knew we needed," portion of the pandemic.
— Karen (unfortunately) (@misplacedintime) April 4, 2021
Be honest with me – does anyone else have trouble watching dog agility without happy-crying a little because the dogs look like they're having so much fun?
— Retro / Splash 🦖💾💕 (@DinoPupper) April 4, 2021
My aunt and I are watching the dog agility contest and she called it dog track and field…why is it not called that? That’s genius.
— Peppermint Mattie (@mayyoncha) April 4, 2021
I’m watching the dog agility championship and the announcer just said, “ The majority of errors are from the handlers.” Who wrote this commentary?! The dogs? 😂
— Marisa (@Marisa_418) April 4, 2021
Who do I have to get in contact with to start betting on dog agility competitions???
— beep (@beep08330474) April 1, 2021
I have been distracted from studying because my parents are watching a dog agility competition on TV. I had to show them Gabby of Twitter fame from weeks ago.
My old dogs both glared at us for encouraging these unrealistic expectations.
— Sarah Blahovec (@Sblahov) April 1, 2021
Searches for “dog agility” peaking on April 1, but compared to the same search done after Westminster, a very small peak.
And for people who aren’t sure televised events will help the sport grow, consider this google search trend:
Congratulations to all of the competitors, volunteers, workers, and AKC staff who made the event a good one! Hopefully, both the AKC and ESPN will learn from this NAC and apply that to the other events ESPN has agreed to broadcast, including the Invitational and Premier Cup.
If you have any questions or comments (or corrections), please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.