Host Beth Stern promised that Kitten Bowl III Sunday will have all of the “super, super adorable” elements fans have come to expect from the Hallmark Channel show.
But this year’s edition also figures to deliver a touch of edginess — just in time for the first Super Bowl Sunday on which the kittens will have a rooting interest in the football game. (Panthers, get it?)
At halftime of Kitten Bowl, puppies will be introduced, rekindling a natural rivalry that predates the Lombardi Trophy.
“Uh, oh, did the cat get out of the bag?” Stern said when asked about the puppies, who initially were to be a surprise. “Yes, at halftime of the Kitten Bowl something very interesting happens, where kittens compete against puppies.
“So kittens and puppies collide. And it is probably the cutest thing you will ever see.”
Cuteness is a given, as are certain elements of the show that are becoming mini-traditions, including John Sterling and Mary Carillo calling the action and Boomer Esiason appearing as commissioner of the Feline Football League.
“It brings it to a whole new level having John there,” Stern said of the Yankees radio play-by-play man. “It makes it so legitimate. It just sounds so official.”
Stern said the field itself is bigger and brighter than ever, including new toys. “I feel everything has been upgraded,” she said. “Each year it gets bigger and better and more colorful, and the kittens are kittens — out of control and super, super adorable.”
But the show also has a serious element: raising awareness for pet adoption.
Stern said more than 100 kittens were used this year and all have been adopted, including five that initially were too young and briefly were fostered by Stern and her husband, Howard, the satellite radio personality.
“We also incorporated a lot more adult cats in need of homes as the coaches and there were a bunch of older cats in the pub watching the game,” Stern said. “So that was really great to just showcase some of the older cats that have been at North Shore [Animal League] for a while.”
Stern said she is supportive of Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl, which will have its 12th edition Sunday, and does not view the two as being in competition.
“I think the more the merrier,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
In addition to the five underage kittens Stern fostered, she also took in an adult named Coach Beli-Cat.
“I’m happy to say my husband and I have fostered and found homes for over 200 cats and kittens over the last couple of years,” Stern said. “We still have our resident cats. We have five now. Unfortunately our first cat, Apple, passed away two days before Christmas of cancer. We were really sad.
“Right now I have, I think, six fosters at the house, including one three-legged one and two blind ones.”
Stern said that while the kittens on the show — which was taped several months ago — have found homes, the show itself inspires viewers to take in others around the country.
“It’s really incredible,” she said. “We have these kitten parties across the United States with all of our partner shelters. For the last two it has resulted in over a thousand cats, dogs, puppies and kittens adopted because of our Super Bowl parties at our partner shelters. Pretty awesome, right?”
Stern said children not only watch and ask for a kitten of their own, “but they learn, too, that they don’t have to go to a pet store, that they can go to a local shelter and see a kitten at the local shelter that looks just like the one on screen, all ready to go.”
In addition to her Kitten Bowl duties Stern is a longtime spokeswoman for North Shore, whose headquarters are in Port Washington, and has been fundraising for several years to build an extension there called Bianca’s Furry Friends.
It would allow for a 15,000-square-foot addition to give felines a cage-free environment on a second floor and open up the downstairs for dogs and puppies.
“We are over $7 million, and that means we are ready to break ground,” she said. “We are waiting, I believe, on one more permit and as soon as we get that permit we are ready to go. So I’m thinking that within the next couple of months we are breaking ground, and my dream will finally come true.”
Stern, who grew up in western Pennsylvania in a family of avid Steelers fans, said she did not follow the team closely this year, “but I was listening to my parents complain when I spoke with them on the phone.”
With the Steelers absent from the Super Bowl again, “my entire family will be able to focus on the Kitten Bowl,” she said.
Stern said the show always is a highlight of her year. “I get to lay on a field and have kittens crawl all over me,” she said.
It appears she will not have to wait as long as usual to do so again. Hallmark plans to add a summer Kitten Games in this Olympic year.
“So much fun,” she said. “I look at it as more lives being saved, more adoptions, more awareness and more openings at the shelter.”