Iditarod’s $ Dilemma

16 - 1(14)

From the days when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had fat-cat sponsors


Alaska author, former newspaperman and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fan Tim Jones has a pitch for you, but the odds are you’re not buying.

“How much does a ticket to the Iditarod cost?” Jones asks on his website. “Nothing. There is nothing to buy a ticket to and thus the biggest sporting event in Alaska can’t sell a single ticket. Except to the web site. Now, the all-inclusive Insider subscription costs $33.95…. The alternative is chartering an airplane and flying along, and having done that twice myself, the web site looks mighty comfortable compared with that and a whole lot cheaper. So given major sports prices, a ticket to Alaska’s biggest seems like a fair price.”

His proposition is a nice one. Unfortunately, it runs upstream against the powerful currents of 21st Century electronic media and the vestiges of 20th Century mass communication.

Let’s be brutally honest here. You’re reading this at right now because it’s free. If I’d demanded money before you could take a peak past the break, you’d have clicked on by.

OK, maybe not all of you. One in a thousand, one in 10,000, maybe one in 100,000 might have decided my prose is so awesome he or she would pay a quarter to look behind the curtain.

Then again, the number could be as high as one in a million. I hate to concede this. It hurts. But it is a possibility.

It is a possibility that cannot be ignored because people have been conditioned to expect electronic entertainment, news and information for free for generations now. It started with radio. It moved on to television. And now it’s on the internet.

Pay-per-view is a rarity that has been generally limited to certain high-profile events that attract rabid fans. Heavy-weight prize fights usually do well. The Grateful Dead, which have a cult following in the millions, drew 400,000 subscribers to their five-night series of concerts last summer.

The Iditarod is not the Grateful Dead. Nor am I. Nor is anyone doing journalism or that blended mess of today’s journal-tainment or entertainism.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a legitimate pol-ebrity, obviously thought she might be at least a pale shadow of the Grateful Dead when she started the Sarah Palin Channel as an experiment in internet TV. It failed within a year.

Even at $9.95 a month — less than a third of what Iditarod charges for a month of dog racing — Palin and her bigwig backers, former CNN president Jonathan Klein and former NBC University  chairman Jeff Gaspin —couldn’t make it work.

From all indications, the Iditarod is actually doing better with the Insider than the organization’s Wasilla neighbor did with the “Sarah Palin Channel,” but the Insider lags way behind original Iditarod expectations of creating some sort of NFL Network TV bonanza.

Money follows popularity

The obvious and unavoidable problem is that Iditarod is no NFL. Call me a heretic if you must Iditarod fans, but sled-dog racing is a niche sport in a niche smaller than cycling or running or Ultimate Frisbee, which is now just called “Ultimate” and three years ago signed a multi-year contract with ESPN to provide television coverage.

Iditarod, once a regular feature on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, is now found on the Sportsman Channel, a minor league television presence. Sportsman attracts 4.5 to 6 million visitors per week, according to, a cable television tracking service. While that might seem like a lot, ESPN attracts more than 10 times as many every week.

For comparison sake, the NFL last year drew about six-times as many people to one game — Seattle versus Dallas on Nov. 1 — as Sportsman attracts in a week, according to USA Today. The Sporstman numbers break down to less than a million people per day spread over 24 hours or about 42,000 people per hour on average.

Sportsman paid Iditarod $108,000 to air coverage, but has now dropped the contract. Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley told the Iditarod board in October, according to board minutes, that Iditarod is negotiating “with ESPN on an agreement that they would air our documentary domestically but there would be no fee here either. But this could be good thing for Iditarod in the long run.”

No fee, a good thing?

Yes, because the shift is about increasing exposure which, in theory, means more fans which hopefully means more Insider subscribers. Iditarod is non-profit corporations required by law to report its financials to the Internal Revenue Service.

The latest of those reports indicate Insider brings in less than $450,000 per year and costs about $250,000 to produce. Iditarod does significantly better with its gaming interests — raffles and the like — which gross $600,000 and cost less than $200,000 to run.

The $200,000 or so made on the Insider is about half of the $390,000 that Timberland, a manufacturer of outdoor wear contributed to be the Iditarod’s prime sponsor in 1994. And if you adjust those 1994 dollars for inflation, the Insider earnings fall to about a third of the Timberland contribution.

If only the Iditarod were more popular. The NFL is so popular it can make billions of dollars selling the rights to its game to television networks and DirecTV. reported the league’s teams divvied up $7.3 billion in revenue last year.

Iditarod, meanwhile, is trying to sell $33.95 internet subscriptions on which it makes about $20. The numbers would indicate Insider has about 13,000 subscribers. If — and this is a huge if — Iditarod could double that this year, it would only net another $260,000.

Obviously, this is a tough business. Compare Iditarod’s revenue generation to the Green Bay Packers, the NFL’s only publicly owned franchise, who sell about $70 million in tickets at Lambeau Field every year. But that isn’t the only way the franchise makes money there.

As the Washington Post reported, the Packers Pro Shop brought in even more money and the Packers have added the “Packers Hall of Fame” and the “1919 Kitchen & Tap” to attract people to Lambeau even when the Packers aren’t playing.

Maybe the Iditarod should think about adding a bar and restaurant like the Kitchen & Tap at Iditarod headquarters in Wasilla. It’s possible there might be at least a much money in attracting people there, and then getting them into the already existing Iditarod Store to buy merchandise as in selling the Insider.

Because selling words or pictures on the internet doesn’t generate a lot of revenue, and on top of that it is a tough sale.

The Toronto Sun, a big Canadian newspaper, tried the paywall with which some U.S. papers are now experimenting. The Sun was pretty explicit about why it got rid of that paywall a year ago.

“We are making this move after extensive input from our readers and our advertisers,” the newspaper said in a statement. You can pretty much guess the input from readers. They hit the paywall and went elsewhere, which surely would cause advertisers to offer input.

Advertisers didn’t want to buy space on a website at which few were looking. Adverstisers want eyeballs. That’s all they want. Sponsors aren’t much different. Yes, those who sponsors Iditarod want to help, but they also want to get something out of the event.

This puts Iditarod in even more of a box. It can’t put everything behind a paywall. It has to stay visible to satisfy advertisers and, hopefully, continue to gain exposure which might help the Insider on down the road.

Or not.

Readers in North America, at least, pretty much believe the internet should be free. It would be wonderful if all Iditarod fans followed Mr. Jones’ advice and subscribed to the Insider, but if the response to the quasi-journalism of Insider is anything like the response to real journalism elsewhere, I wouldn’t count on it.

Now, feel free to leave a tip, though I doubt you will. This is the internet.








16 replies »

  1. The big Internet funding paradigm is free to view paid for by targeted advertising. Nothing to stop the ITC from getting on-board. Advertisers get what they pay for and pay for what they get. For the rights holder, in this case ITC, they have to generate more interest and audience by providing better more exciting content. I remember discussing this with Joe Runyan 15 years ago when the methods and effects were trickling down from the big players in the field of Internet websites and social media to smaller ones. Newer technology easily allows that now, even on my free wordpress blog I might have third party advertising placement. I can see statistics who views and from what country…

    But! ITC has to have a more open attitude. The gag regulation demonstrates in a small way that they do not. Controversy sells a sport. Borg and McEnroe for example… how boring to watch sports with only heroes and trite commentary.

    Also, what killed the Alpirod as well as the financial crisis in France was the owners’ unwillingness to share. Royal Canin, a dog food company could have increased their revenue by adopting the more open funding and sponsorship policies of other sports and events. A bigger bottom line as a share of a much bigger pie. As it was if teams were sponsored by other dog food companies Royal Canin tried to ignore them and reduce the exposure of sponsors that were competitors. Pep Pares understood the marketing dynamics much better in Pirena but climate change caught up to that race. Where would Formula One be if a tire company owned the events and refused to allow other tire companies to participate and get fair share of exposure?

  2. The ITC needs enough money to put on the race properly. But beyond that, my question would be, why do they need more money? To increase the purse? Forget about that. The real revenue streams for the mushers are sponsorships, appearance fees, the sale of dogs, and the big one: Alaska tourism. Winning or doing well in the big race helps with all of those things. But I think that a giant purse would do more harm than good to the sport in general and specifically to the race’s image.

  3. great article, to get to the point. i called iditarod on insider when it first came out there strategy was to raise the entry fee to help defray startup costs for there extended up to the minute pay per view video footage. not sure or not whether this was a brainchild of danny seavey the younger like the fantasy game or not, but hes always been a real vocal supporter. i was against it from the begining. i think free media for sports updates is the way to get more traction. they sell the video, hourlong video production after the race. thats where the revenue should be gathered from reporting on the trail in my opinion.

    the iditarod itself. hard look at it. its a non profit. but all the musher kennels and big tour businesses connected to it, siphoning and building off the core of the non profit. are for profit enterprises for the most part. even if , like some mushers. they choose to try to raise awareness about a cause , or partner with an organization to raise funds. they are not, like for instance jeff king in denali park his husky homestead tours the seaveys in seward and linwood fiedler , alaska excursions, as well as alaska heli mush all in southeast alaska. none of them are incorporated as non profits.

    A lot of the dog mushers can put themselves in the races thru these avenues, gaining sponsors and wages etc thru working a tour guides. during the summer months. politics, economics. a lot of behind the scenes jostling goes on. that the fans during the two weeks of march are not aware of. money , andaccess to it. in my opinion. is too much the bottom line with where the sport has evolved from the last couple decades and the also the direction it is going. testing more than this. is the essence of onedogclass , or the vision behind what we are slowly trying to dream into reality. an uphill battle for sure.

    looking at iditarod tho, there model is simply wrong if they are making fans pay for insider footage during the race tho. i know myself and many others, refuse to care any longer. they lost the heart and soul of the race, the people who grew up in the sport. and now its about the wealthy, and their friends on facebook whom are allowed to comment on their feeds, and the people who agree with them. mostly tourists and old women. working alaska, the kids, the people in the villages.

    onedogclass could return the spirit to the trail. one dog. one person. about getting food and resources yourself. thats the story at the heart of alaska. and should be the ultimate test. fitness and health of individual, as well as how the person. and people. relate to the landscape.

    i think its a real unhealthy competition field, as well as organization. dallas has not much for the ways of competition in his age group. its just specialized to something that takes way too much money , too many hangers on who been doing it for decades just ot be in the limelight and on the trail where other people r pulling the slack all winter etc. got to be about more than money. for the insider as well as the competitors. for anything worth watching. you feel me.

  4. I believe (tho I’m not positive) that the Green Bay Packers benefit b/c the NFL is set up in such a way that stadium revenues (team revenues?) are shared equally between teams in the league. In any case, NFL’s efforts at parity have kept it interesting.

    Iditarod is expensive to report on and hard for non-mushers to understand. I think there may be an important lost opportunity in not providing an easy way to follow the dogs, rather than simply the mushers and a couple of the main leaders of elite teams. People love dogs! But the dogs here are just numbers, not names. Who was dropped? Who is running? Who’s in a bag? We watch the kentucky derby for horses, not jockeys. Just a thought. I know they’ve probably tried just about every idea out there to generate support.

    Another thought is that gambling/fantasy leagues are how a lot of people engage in pro sports. If people place wagers on greyhounds, they’ll wager on Iditaracers. Here, my idea about providing a better way to follow individual dogs would help a lot — rather than simply selecting a number of mushers, people could build fantasy teams out of combinations of mushers’ dogs, as with players in fantasy football/baseball. I digress…

  5. Hard to make money on the Internet? Yes indeed. Look at me. Created and maintained 2 skiing resource web sites for 20 years. Net profit per hour? Maybe 1 cent an hour. I look at the Internet as an information “pot luck” exchange between anyone in the world. I “pay” by feeding content to the web beast via my web sites. I “get paid” by obtaining information for free from the web beast (programming language knowledge) that I use outside of the Internet to make money. The only folks that really make money on the Internet are the enablers … the people that enable the flow of free information on the Internet (Facebook, Google, Amazon, etc …).

  6. I like free stuff too, though I thought I was supporting the Iditarod (albeit in a very marginal way) by watching it on TV for those couple of years that it was sponsored by Cabella’s. My family and I were disappointed when they stopped doing that. Maybe I can buy some t-shirts and hoodies at the store (didn’t know there was one…thanks for pointing it out).

    I’m currently tracking the ITI (for free) on Would be cool if they also had some merch 🙂 (though who knows if it would be worth it for them…you’d think at least friends and family would buy stuff 🙂 You know there are internet comic strips that support themselves almost enirely through merchandise…

      • You know the saying “Information wants to be free”…but unless you can afford to give away swag, you might as well sell it 🙂 I’m thinking maybe a wolf or a moose delivering/chewing on a newspaper, with some pithy caption (you’re the writer, you can probably come up with words more betterer than mine), with ‘’ maybe on the other side? Or something else Alaska related…I’ve never been up there but hope to make it some day. Cheers.

      • In Craig’s case the tee shirt would more appropriately show a bear chewing on a newspaper MAN. I just could not resist this.

  7. Interesting patch depicting former sponsors. Timberland, Bayer, AT&T, and IAMS all pulled their sponsorship of the Iditarod under pressure from animal rights groups who pressured them with bullshit about poor dog treatment. No one could convince these corporations that it is ridiculous to think that people would mistreat a dog worth thousands of dollars so they took their money and let the race find other sponsors. I have boycotted every one of these corporations ever since (well except when Cellular One sold out to AT&T and my phone contract went with it) and I wish every other Alaskan would do the same.

    • Jim, I hear you. I have boycotted Timerberland ever since they left the Iditarod. And I boycotted IAMS because their shitty food made my dogs sick (but that’s another story). And I would boycott any advertiser that pulled out from!

  8. I grew up tracing the routes and rooting for the favorites in grade school classrooms. The teachers would read the check-ins in from the paper, and each kid would move the pin for their musher. I remember it being a lot of fun. However, as soon as the top ten were in Nome, the excitement died down. The kids that experienced dwindling returns on said excitement as their mushers finished.

    I moved away from Alaska for a number of years in my twenties, and there was next to no news anywhere about the Iditarod. It was one of those “alaskan things”… like igloos, polar bears, and penguins.

    Iditarod’s dilema goes much deeper than just it’s money woes. Last year the restart was moved to fairbanks. We were lucky this years restart was again in willow, but the traditonal start off of Lake Lucille is likely to never happen again. I fear that my generation will see the end of the Iditarod, not just because it might bankrupt, but because the race is nothing like it was when founded. And because of that it is not the race that Alaskans remember.

Leave a Reply