For some time we have seen a number of really small shows. There are some positive aspects to the less than 400 dog entry. Exhibitors have more time to speak with each other and more time to learn something new. The logistics of a smaller show make the day more pleasant. There’s plenty of parking, grooming space and ringside seating. Ring stewards are more relaxed, and judges have more time to spend with each dog AND with each exhibitor. Almost every exhibitor I know listens to judges very intently. There are even reasons to keep a show small, such as a venue that will not accommodate a 1,000-plus dog show. However, for the most part, the increasing number of sub-400 shows is indicative of a sick system that must be addressed.
The existence of unintentionally small shows has a negative impact on previously healthy clubs. Most weekends exhibitors have more than one option for shows within an easy drive. A good portion of the dogs at the smallest shows could have just as easily driven the opposite direction and boosted the 1,000-dog entry to 1,250. Having done a few breakeven analyses in my professional career, I know it’s extremely difficult for a club to recoup costs on a show with fewer than 600 entries. To me the most detrimental aspect of this is the impact it has on the public. If I get up early on a Saturday and load up the family sedan to take my kids to a dog show to see their favorite breed only to find out that there are none of that breed at my local show, I’m not bringing the family back to the next show.
So much for the impact of the small shows. So what are the root causes of the dwindling entries? One is demographics. The active exhibitors from the 1980s when there were 3,000-dog entries almost every weekend are aging out of the sport. If they are still around, most show less frequently than they did before. If you look at the problem we have with Social Security, you understand that the same numbers have an impact on our sport. We have people leaving the sport in greater numbers than we have people coming into the sport. Part of this is unavoidable. The birthrate has slowed. However, much of this is simply an indication that we are losing exhibitors because we don’t know how to properly market our game.
There is no doubt that the downturn in the economy has had an impact. Our sport can be expensive. The cost of a dog and his care and feeding are one thing, but attending shows can be quite costly. Even if you are lucky enough to be at a show site where you can drive to and from the venue daily, the cost of gas often makes it less expensive to overnight in a hotel. However, most middle class families participate in some kind of hobby, and dog shows are no more expensive than playing golf or fishing. In any event, I suspect that the economics of the vanishing exhibitors is only a temporary contributor.
A much more serious issue is the failure to recruit young people into the sport in significant numbers. While the junior program seems to be healthy (I would like to see more boys in the program), young people overall don’t see our sport as worthy of their free time. There are two drivers here. One is the “nerd” status of our sport. Those of us in the game may see the sport as glamorous and exciting, but most young people see us as a bunch of geeks who talk baby talk to our pets. The second is an educational system that demonizes breeders and glorifies the shelter dog. Add them together, and our sport has all the allure of a leper colony. Simply put, showing dogs isn’t cool. I wonder why we haven’t undertaken a more vigorous campaign to make the various aspects of our sport attractive to young people? Consider this: around two-thirds of American households have pets. Most have dogs. Couple that with the increasing number of single person households in our major cities. If you can’t sell a dog-related activity to those people whose primary emotional involvement is with their dogs, you couldn’t sell people in Hell ice water.
Then there is the issue of retention. You might be able to get people in the door, but how do you keep them coming back? Some clubs have new exhibitor orientations, but how many clubs actively seek out new exhibitors and assure they have a positive first time experience at a show. How much effort would it be to add to the standard entry form a field to identify first timers? How much effort would it be to ask people to volunteer to assist first timers (hey, you might get help schlepping your stuff). At a minimum, give the first timers a name tag to wear and encourage experienced exhibitors to say, “Hello, we are so happy to have you here.”
Finally, ask yourself when the last time was that you did something to bring someone into our world? And that’s Today’s Back Story.