A California animal-rights group was Monday claiming credit for a longtime sponsor abandoning Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“Victory!” headlined the website of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “Wells Fargo & Guggenheim Partners End Iditarod Sponsorships”
The report Wells Fargo was cutting ties with the Super Bowl of Alaska was confirmed by a Wells Fargo official in Anchorage Monday evening. He said the company expected to issue a statement later on the end of its Iditarod relationship. The Guggenheim report could not be immediately confirmed.
Wells Fargo has been associated with the Iditarod for almost 30 years. The relationship dates back to the national banking chain’s acquisition of the former Bank of the North.
Only three years ago, Wells Fargo officials gushed all over the Iditarod in an Alaska Business Monthly story which described the 49th state’s Last Great Race as one of Wells Fargo’s “signature events.”
The company was then co-sponsoring a hospitality booth at the race start, and independently sponsoring the Gold Coast Award for the first musher to Unalakleet on the Bering Sea, the Red Lantern Award given the last musher to finish the Iditarod, and the official finishers’ banquet in Nome to wrap up the race.
“This is such an important tradition; the race captures the Alaskan spirit and is all about Alaskans helping Alaskans,” Elaine Junge, vice president and regional marketing manager for Wells Fargo, told reporter Vanessa Orr. “Its rich heritage is so important to what we as a company believe; it reflects our values as a company.”
The Iditarod, which has long been under attack by animal rights activists, was then flying high. It had just run its first race without a fatality, something veterinarians considered a statistical improbability given the many ways dogs can die.
But two more death-free years followed in 2011 and 2012, and there was but one death in 2013 and that came because of a checkpoint handling error.
Iditarod was riding a wave and Wells Fargo along with it. Its Alaska branches were featuring “Iditarod Days” where members of the Wells Fargo “team” sported Iditarod shirts crafted by well-known Alaska artist and musher Jon Van Zyle.
Dog deaths and bad publicity
From 2010 until this year, the Iditarod was little but positive publicity for the banking giant, but some of the glow left this year with five deaths – three on the trail and two associated with the handling of Iditarod dogs that dropped out of the race – and the screening of the documentary “Sled Dogs” which raised difficult questions about the businesses associated with sled dogs.
PETA moved quickly to exploit the situation. With mushers across the north enraged by “Sled Dogs” and launching protests, PETA hosted a showing at its Empathy Center on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and embraced director Fern Levitt.
In the wake of the movie, PETA organizers are said to have put together a list of Lower-48 based sponsors to target. Wells Fargo and Guggenheim were reported to be on that list with Exxon Mobil and others.
PETA publicly issued an “action alert” requesting its members and supporters “use the form below to urge Beacon, Chrysler, Exxon Mobil, and State Farm to end their sponsorship of this abusive race in which dogs are run to their deaths.”
Dogs are not run to their deaths in the Iditarod, but dogs have died just as humans sometimes do while running marathons.
The latest animal-rights attack is bad news for a largely sponsored-funded race already struggling in the face of the Alaska recession, but the Iditarod has lived a history of difficult finances. The first race was run with prize money promised before it was collected, and there have been several occasions since when the race has teetered on the edge of financial ruin.
Rick Swenson, the race’s only five-time champ, once remarked that it didn’t matter to him what happened, that he expected the race would go on even if it came down to a small group of dog mushers competing to win a bag of dog food in Nome.
Wells Fargo was a second-tier “lead dog” sponsor for the Iditarod. It this year financed online coverage of the race. Lead-dog sponsors contribute $100,000 to $250,000 to the race.
Guggenheim is a “wheel dog” sponsor. Wheel dog sponsors contribute $25,000 to $50,000.
Guggenheim is a global investment firm. Scott Minerd, the global chief investment officer for the company, has been a big advocate for Arctic development. Alice Rogoff, the publisher of the Alaska Dispatch News, introduced him to Nome and the Iditarod in 2011 when she was the owner of the internet start-up Alaska Dispatch.com
Rogoff has long been an Iditarod fan, although after buying the Anchorage Daily News and merging it with Dispatch not long after checkpoint hopping the Iditarod by small plane in 2014, she was forced to drop the former’s long Iditarod sponsorship because of financial difficulties. The Daily News for years provided the Iditarod with a little cash and a lot of free advertising to market raffles and other fund-raising events.
Both are vital to the race.
More than half of the annual budget of about $5 million comes from cash sponsorships donations. Another big chunk of the money comes from various fund-raising efforts that are fueled by free advertising.
“There are so many examples of this,” Iditarod Executive Director Stan Hooley told Orr. “We get airline tickets from Alaska Air and PenAir, and Anchorage Chrysler Dodge provides the winner’s truck and also gives us four vehicles to give away as raffle prizes.”
Tough times coming?
Anchorage Chrysler Dodge has long been the race’s biggest booster. It’s enthusiasm was driven by Rod Udd, the company owner and the race’s biggest fan. Udd passed away this year, and since his death there have been questions about the size of the role played by Anchorage Chrysler Dodge going forward.
Those knowledgeable as to the value of Alaska advertising say Udd was clearly contributing more to the race than his company was getting back in marketing worth.
As an Iditarod “principal partner” along with Exxon Mobil, Donlin Gold and GCI, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge donated more than $250,000 per year to the race. Donlin and GCI are Alaska-based company’s that get nothing but good spin from the Iditarod, a beloved event in the 49th state.
They are generally considered immune to Outside pressure.
ExxonMobil is a national energy company with more at stake. It already has problems with the environmental community after being accused of trying to cover up climate change.
Animals-rights groups have also been reported to be leaning on Seattle-based Alaska Airlines, which now does the bulk of its business Outside. With the recent purchase of Virgin American, Alaska became the nation’s fifth largest airline behind American, Delta, United and Southwest.
PETA has also publicly upped the pressure on some smaller Iditarod sponsors.
“PETA and people all over the world who care about dogs commend the compassionate decision made by (Wells Fargo and Guggenheim),” it said in the Monday blog post, “but recognize that there is still work to be done. Even though many major brands—including Costco, Maxwell House, Nestlé, Pizza Hut, Rite Aid, and Safeway—cut ties with the Iditarod years ago, others, like Coca-Cola, continue to sponsor the event, and they need to hear from you.
“Until the Iditarod is canceled entirely or switches to using only willing, human cyclists, cross-country skiers, or snowmobilers, you can make a difference for the dogs who suffer on the trail. Please join PETA in urging Chrysler, State Farm, Coca-Cola, and others to end their sponsorship of this abusive race.”
Iditarod mushers and fans disagree with just about every word in that last paragraph, but whether they rally to support the race remains to be seen. The Alaska of 2017 is a very different place than the Alaska of 1973 when the Iditarod race began as an effort to save the rich history of sled dog travel in the north.