Sponsors play key role in financing Iditarod

The "Last Great Race" is running at full speed financially and offering a record purse to a record number of competitors this year.

Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race said the total purse to be split among the top 30 finishers in Nome will be $700,000 for 2004. Last year’s purse was $650,000, and in 2002 it was $600,000, he said.

A total of 109 mushers signed up to run this year, but with last-minute dropouts, organizers are expecting 93 teams on race day including 38 rookies in the field. The previous record number of entrants was 81 in 2000, Hooley said.

The 1,049-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, now in its 32nd year, is supported by a number of means, the most obvious being four "presenting" sponsors. Those remain the same this year, Hooley said. They are Anchorage Chrysler Dodge, Cabela’s sporting goods, General Communication Inc. and Wells Fargo Bank.

Each of those companies contributes a minimum of $150,000 annually, Hooley said. A second tier of major sponsors pay a minimum of $50,000 each and the group this year includes Alaska Airlines, the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska’s SuperStation, Chevron, Fred Meyer stores, the Millennium Hotel Anchorage and PenAir.

All told, the race has more than 40 official sponsors, and Hooley said the goal this year is to increase sponsorship revenue by $150,000 over last year.

"I’m confident we’ll make it," he said.

And that’s just the start of the moneymaking process.

"We have a variety of rather ambitious fundraising programs beyond sponsorship in place," Hooley said. "Our merchandising efforts are awfully important to us, as well as our gaming and raffle ticket sales, memberships and the ’Iditarider’ auction."

The latter is an event in which participants pony up substantial bids for the privilege of riding with mushers from the starting gate on Anchorage’s Fourth Avenue for the first 11 miles of the race.

This year’s auction brought in $138,659; the most expensive bid was from an individual in Texas who paid $7,500 to cruise out of town with perennial race favorite Dee Dee Jonrowe of Willow.

The raffles involve giving away a half-dozen pick-up trucks throughout the year, and while sponsor Anchorage Chrysler Dodge contributes "a couple" of the prizes, Hooley said race organizers foot the bill for the other vehicles. It is worth the investment, he said.

"Basically, we gross $600,000 in revenue from raffle ticket sales, and we’ve got expenses for advertising and prizes of about $250,000 associated with that. But it is a profitable thing for us," he said.

The non-profit Iditarod Trail Committee also generates income from musher entry fees, hosting of special events and collection of royalties on race-related items.

"One of the things we’ve worked very hard on for the past 10 years is diversifying our funding base," Hooley said. "Back in the early ’90s we were very heavily dependent on just a couple of very significant funding sources.

"As we all know, when you undergo personnel changes within corporate America, those relationships become vulnerable and it’s a real risk for any organization to depend on one or two sources of funding."

Hooley said the Iditarod is currently operating under an annual budget of approximately $2.7 million, and there are plenty of bills to pay.

The race itself costs $1.27 million to stage, merchandising expenditures are nearly $280,000 and sponsorship support expenses are just over $300,000.

General and administrative expenses are about $417,000 and the remainder of the budget is consumed by paying for those raffles, membership support, special events and promotions.

Insuring the Iditarod is another critical line item each year.

"Our insurance costs are rather substantial over the course of the year," Hooley said.

He said one example is coverage for the all-volunteer "Iditarod Air Force" of private pilots and their aircraft who provide essential logistic support for the race.

"For having them in the air for a period of a month-and-a-half each year, it costs us around $50,000. It’s necessary, and it’s a risky business. In addition to that we’ve got other liability policies in place, as well," he said.

"The risk management issues are much different than those for a track and field event or a basketball game."

Unknown factors such as vicious weather and life-threatening mishaps are always lurking on the trail, too, Hooley said.

"That’s part of the cachet or mystique of this race that draws so many of us together for this event," he said. "I think there may be too much Jack London in all of us, the need to experience the unknown and the unpredictable.

"There have been a number of close situations over the years, but we’ve never had a human tragedy," he said.

The race has only five or fewer full-time employees year-round, Hooley said.

"So we’ve got our hands full with various responsibilities. The phone never stops ringing," he said.

"We’ve had a very good year of preparation," Hooley said. "Now it’s a matter of managed chaos until race day," he joked.

The run to Nome will begin at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 6 at the corner of 4th Avenue and D street in Anchorage with the traditional re-start the next day in Wasilla.

02/08/2004 - 8:00pm