As Sponsors Fall Away, the Iditarod Tightens Its Belt

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As Sponsors Fall Away, the Iditarod Tightens Its Belt

[Ed. Note: To help end the Iditarod, visit Sled Dog Action Coalition.]

From The New York Times
February 2010

Most days, a handful of devoted fans pay their respects in a tiny museum here dedicated to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which has been run across Alaska’s punishing wilderness for the last 37 years. And in March, spectators will come in droves to watch along the more than 1,000-mile course.

But the race may have less of a national audience this year. Its last remaining broadcast deal was not renewed, part of a $1 million decline in revenue as sponsors have also dropped out.

Accordingly, the prize purse shrank, and salaries and benefits for the race’s employees were reduced, said Stan Hooley, the race’s executive director.

“This event, not unlike a lot of other sporting events — and any other ventures, really — isn’t immune to what’s happening with this country’s economy,” Hooley said. “We’ve done our own little bit of financial suffering in the past few months.”

Sponsorships and licensing fees for race video to broadcast and online outlets used to make up 35 percent of the race’s income, Hooley said. Chevron and the outdoor gear retailer Cabela’s did not renew their sponsorships for 2010, and others reduced their commitments.

Versus, which televised a series on the race the last four years, will not do so this year. Only local stations will cover the start, the finish and key points along the way.

Cabela’s cited the recession.

“It was purely an economic decision,” said Joe Arterburn, a Cabela’s spokesman. “Unfortunately, the Iditarod was caught up in that.”

Chevron would not discuss why it dropped its sponsorship, saying via e-mail: “Chevron’s community investments focus on funding programs that address three main areas: basic human needs, education and economic development. We are continually reviewing the programs we support to ensure they are aligned with that focus.”

The event took a $485,000 blow last year when Cabela’s reduced its commitment and the Discovery Channel declined to continue “Iditarod: Toughest Race on Earth,” a documentary series that ran in 2008.

Elizabeth Hillman, a Discovery Channel spokeswoman, said that decision was aesthetic, not financial.

“The Iditarod is an amazing story of humans and animals, the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said. “But that didn’t translate to the screen.”

The only place to watch same-day coverage, Hooley said, will be Iditarod.com. But he played down the effect of reduced coverage. Hard-core race fans, he said, are better served by following up-to-the-minute action online rather than watching it on television shows broadcast weeks after the race.

Most of the race revenue, Hooley said, comes from the sale of Iditarod-branded gear and auction items, including a chance to ride with the current champion, Lance Mackey, for the first 11 miles. (The winning bid was $7,500.) About 65 percent of the operational budget of $3.7 million is raised this way, Hooley said, the bulk around race time.

Iditarod staff members have taken pay cuts of at least 10 percent, but no one quit, Hooley said. Ten are full time and about 100 others, like veterinarians, race judges and trail sweepers, are contracted around the competition season.

“The Iditarod family are there for a lot of reasons, and money is only part of it,” said Stuart Nelson Jr., the race’s chief veterinarian for the last 15 years.

In addition to his race duties, Nelson is a year-round consultant to the Iditarod. He said his salary was reduced by 20 percent, to $17,500, this year.

“Yeah, it’s not fun getting less in return,” he said. “But it’s just when it becomes part of your life, there are other reasons you do it.”

With Iditarod.com as the sole viewing platform, competitors say a lack of exposure may have further consequences.

“It is sort of sad,” said the Iditarod competitor Hugh Neff, adding that people will not get a chance to see “what’s going on in this part of the world.”

More than two decades ago, Neff, then a college student in Illinois, was introduced to sled dog racing, or mushing, through television. He now raises more than 60 dogs at his Laughing Eyes Kennel.

“TV was my first inkling of what it was about,” Neff said. “Seeing the forbidden northern Arctic Alaska, the challenge of going 1,000 miles with just your best friends, your dogs.”

But the shrinking purse — under $600,000 this year, down from $925,000 in 2008 — is potentially the most damaging consequence of the race’s financial issues. Top-level contenders may spend up to $250,000 a year on breeding and training sled dogs for competition, Hooley said.

“The last thing that we ever want to do is reduce prize money because of the investment that it takes to prepare a race team on an individual basis,” Hooley said. “The less money that goes back into the mushing community for them to recoup their expenses, the more difficult it is for them.”

The four-time champion Jeff King, who said he had won more than $1 million in about 30 years as a competitive musher, recently donated $50,000, as did the city of Nome. The Iditarod applied King’s contribution to the prize coffer.

“I’m not a rich man by any means,” King said. “But I think I’m one of the few people in the history of the race who has made more than they have spent racing, and I’m willing to give it back.”

King, who last won the race in 2006, is considered a serious contender.

“What a fairy tale that would be, to win it back,” he said.

King has made peace with the possibility that his rivals might go home with his money.

“I want them to continue to pay their bills,” he said, “so I can continue racing against them.”