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 craigmedred.news 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 Statista.com, 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. Bloomberg.com 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.
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.