Only time will tell the consequences of the decision by the new Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race board of directors to reverse course on the old Board and clear musher Dallas Seavey of doping charges despite the lack of any other suspect or suspects in the case.
So far that decision seems to be largely a hit with serious Idit-a-fans. Comments on Facebook and forum pages that cater to mushing junkies lean strongly in favor of the declaration that the Iditarod puts full faith in the 31-year-old musher’s claim that he didn’t administer the tramadol near or at the end of the 2017 race in Nome.
And if – as his father, Mitch, has suggested – the Iditarod hopes to change “the demographic of our audience from 60-year-old women to 34-year-old men,” doing whatever is necessary to bring back young, well-spoken, four-time champ Dallas seems at first blush a sensible political move for the new board.
Whether the Iditarod can make the switch to a younger, male, fan base even with young Seavey in the field, and whether he makes any real difference as to the race’s future are more questions only time will answer.
There is little doubt The Last Great Race, as Iditarod bills itself, is facing something of an uphill marketing battle in an increasingly urban world with young people ever more oriented toward the indoors instead of the outdoors.
E-sport, as in video games, is now the fastest growing sport in the world, according to the World Economic Forum.
“This sport will soon be a $1 billion business with a global audience of over 300 million fans,” it reported in July. “eSports (short for Electronic Sports) is the name given to professional competitive gaming. In a nutshell, competitors play video games, while being watched by a live audience. Millions more watch the games online.”
The Iditarod might be well advised to come up with an Iditarod Trail video game.
Competitive sled-dog racing itself is such small potatoes financially that no one in recent times has even bothered to try determining its value as a business. Mark Hermann, an economist the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), took a shot at that in the late 1990s and came up with an estimate of $10.9 million to $16.3 million in 1989 dollars.
Adjusting for inflation, that would translate into a current value of $23 million to $34 million. Whether the sport has kept up with inflation is, however, questionable.
In 1989, the Iditarod had a purse of $400,000, which when corrected for inflation would equal $824,000 in current dollars as of the end of the race in March of this year, according to the inflation calculator of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The actual 2018 purse in March was $500,000, the equivalent of a $242,633 back in 1989 if the inflation calculator has the numbers right.
A race for whom?
Dog mushing is obviously a niche sport, and long-distance sled-dog racing is a tiny corner in the niche. U.S. participation in sled-dog sports of all forms is so low it doesn’t make the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA) list of the top-50 participant sports.
The list stops at wrestling, a sport in which Dallas was a former participant. The NSGA reported 1 percent of Americans engage in wrestling.
Ski-joring – being towed by a sled dog on skis – is widely reported to be the fastest growing of the sled dog sports, but there are no participation numbers to be found anywhere to back up various media claims as to that “fastest growing.”
A 2013 Sports, Fitness and Leisure Activities Topline Participation Report compiled by Sports Marketing Surveys dug deeper into U.S. data than the NSGA did, but it didn’t get down to sled dog sports either.
It went only as far as boxing for competition, which had a reported 959,000 participants of whom 190,000 were regulars in the gym. That compares to 4.4 million who hunt with bow and arrow, the more than 16 million who regularly throw darts, the 23.2 million fitness swimmers, and the 39.8 million people engaged in bicycling, according to the survey.
Sports participation, it should be noted, does not necessarily translate into sports viewing interest. Despite all those people on bikes, very little cycling makes it onto the TV in the U.S. because viewer interest appears low.
NBC-Sports Network reported the Tour de France, cycling’s biggest event, attracted only about 5 million viewers through its first 15 stages this year, but it did appear to be scoring well with the eyeballs of people in some key markets for advertisers, among them San Fransisco, San Diego, Seattle, Denver and Boston.
Eyeballs are what advertisers want. They want to put their message in front of people’s eyeballs so they can sell them stuff.
There was no national coverage of the Iditarod this year. The Sportsman Channel put it on cable in 2014 and attracted only 837,000 viewers for the event. The Channel signed an agreement to return and cover the Iditarod in 2015, but the relationship ended in 2016.
First TV and later the internet have always been the great, snowy white hope of Iditarod in the belief that if you show it, viewers will come. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way.
In terms of marketing, the Iditarod’s modern-day packaging might actually have worked against it some ways. At one time, there was a certain drama inherent in the fundamental question of how many of the race starters would actually make it the 1,000 miles from Anchorage to Nome.
But as the Iditarod Trail has steadily improved, and as the rules have been increasingly tightened to make it difficult for the less experienced to enter the race, the Iditarod has become more and more about which of a white-bread cast of characters makes it first to Nome.
In Iditarod’s heyday – when the purse was approaching the $1 million threshold Mitch Seavey dreams of today – it had a cast of characters led by a cocky and dominate woman, the late Susan Butcher, and a cocky and irritated man, Rick Swenson.
An already four-time champ, Swenson was being threatened by one, two and then three-time champ in Butcher. Their competition reached its peak in 1991 when Swenson led his team through a brutal, life-threatening coastal storm to win his fifth race. Butcher turned back.
“‘Weren’t you scared?'” someone asked Swenson in the bar of the Golden Nugget Motel, where he was already sipping a Jack Daniel’s and Coke, less than a hour after he had won this trans-Alaska sled dog race in 12 days, 16 hours, 34 minutes and 39 seconds. ‘You went out in a blinding snowstorm when almost everyone else turned back. No one could find you. You could have died!’
“‘Aw, hell, I wasn’t gonna die,’ he snapped. ‘Not as long as I stayed on the trail. Besides, what’s my life worth, anyway? If I had to go back and listen to 365 days of that crap — ‘How come women keep beating you?’ Blah, blah, blah — I’d just as soon be dead.'”
Swenson was among the last of the Iditarod’s blunt talkers, though he was nothing but smooth when he later appeared on the David Letterman Show in those pre-internet days when late-night talk shows were a much bigger deal than they are today.
The world is a very different place in 2018 than it was in 1991 and even more so than it was in 1973 when the late Joe Redington started the Iditarod with the stated intent of saving the Alaska husky and its place in the rural Alaska lifestyle.
Expensive-to-feed huskies, which need year-round care, are largely gone from the villages of remote Alaska now, replaced by high-tech snowmobiles that can be parked for the summer and started with the turn of a key come the snow season.
And the Alaska husky of Redington’s day is gone, too – morphed into a short-haired, mixed breed of hound, bird dog and husky as it became clear that over-heating was one of the key impediments to sled-dog performance. Muscle activity in sled dogs generally yields 20 percent work and 80 percent heat.
Dogs that shed heat more easily can run faster and longer and are thus the sled-dogs of choice these days. Many, if not most, Iditarod dogs are short-haired and in need of coats to keep them warm in extreme cold.
Short-haired dogs running on well-groomed trails pulling image-conscious mushers sitting on sit-sleds that ease the ride to Nome at a faster pacer than Redington could have imagined have all served to change the Iditarod in easily visible ways.
The race still markets the old image of mushers and dogs struggling against a brutal wilderness to reach Nome, but anyone who watches the Iditarod on the tube or in the tubes quickly recognizes a lot of that is nonsense.
The Iditarod is by no means easy. Extreme cold, which sometimes still settles on the Iditarod, is brutal for people and dogs. But a trail, even a poorly groomed trail, is so different from untracked wilderness that it is hard to fool even the naive into believing they are the same.
Iditarod revenue numbers make it appear the organizations “Iditarod Insider,” an internet, dog-version of NFL.com available for$33.95 per year, draws about 15,000 paying customers.
The 15,000 Iditarod Insiders versus the 837,000 Iditarod viewers on the Sportsman Channel would indicate a lot of Iditarod followers are either cheap or something less than full-on fans. Most Iditarod gawkers appear to be casual Iditarod followers, people who will gravitate to a good story related to someone running dogs but won’t necessarily go looking for such a story.
These sorts of consumers are fickle and susceptible to the pitch from animal-rights activists opposed to the race. The Iditarod appeared to recognize that with its ban of veteran musher Hugh Neff because of a dog death in the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race earlier this year.
But the organization’s inconsistency raises questions. Katherine Keith who had a dog die in the Iditarod this year for the same reason Neff’s dog died in the Quest, and had a dog die in the Iditarod the year before, again for the same reason, is racing even though Neff has been banned.
And then there is Dallas.
In his case, the Iditarod apologized for exactly what? Dallas was never penalized. Dallas was never banned. The Iditarod simply said tramadol was found in his dog team, and pointed out the team has always been a musher’s responsibility.
So what is the message now? The team is not the musher’s responsibility? The welfare of the team is not the musher’s responsibility? Or the welfare of the team is not a musher’s responsibility if Iditarod really believes it needs that musher in the race to help sell the Iditarod?
Animals-right organizations are sure to exploit this. The only thing that is surprising is that they haven’t been all over it already. But this is the Christmas season. They could all be out saving the Christmas trees, or the birds that nest in them, from the ax.
Still, it isn’t hard to conjure up the anti’s pitch: “The Iditarod says it is all about the dogs, but when it came to the dogs being doped, Iditarod didn’t care. It didn’t try to find out who doped the dogs. It just said, ‘Well, we know it couldn’t have been Dallas Seavey because Dallas is a four-time champ, and four-time champs don’t dope their dogs.”
Given the track record for doping in sport – watch the movie Icarus if you want a lesson in doping – can anyone not a fan of Iditarod believe the race cares about doping when it makes no effort to investigate how that tramadol got into Seavey’s dogs?
From an Alaska standpoint, the ideal would have been for Iditarod to conduct an investigation, better define where and when it thought the doping occurred, and announce a suspect or suspects other than Dallas.
Even a shoddy investigation would have given the race some cover. “Just believe us” doesn’t work so well. Only diehard Idit-a-fans can accept that. Everyone else has to ask “why?”
I’m confident that most Alaskans who pay attention to the Iditarod want to believe that Dallas didn’t do it. I want to believe that Dallas didn’t do it. But here’s the problem:
He had motive. He had opportunity. And, by his own admission, he had access to tramadol.
For those reasons, he can’t be eliminated as a suspect unless there is a better suspect. And even then, if this were an old episode of the TV show “Law and Order,” any defense attorney worth his salt would be dragging Dallas into the case to say, “Look, here’s another guy who could have done it.”
I feel sorry for Dallas. I’ve long thought one of the worst things in life would be to be a professional athlete wrongly accused of doping because it’s almost impossible to prove your innocence. At best, you can make a strong case that you didn’t do it.
But nobody even bothered to make a case here. The Iditarod, which has a vested interest in Dallas rejoining the Iditarod, simply declared he must be innocent because, well, it’s the Iditarod and it can declare whatever it wants.
How that sells time will tell. And, admittedly,one can legitimately wish that other sports had taken this approach.
Would it have been so bad if the Tour had stuck by Lance Armstrong, and declared he was innocent because he said so? Wouldn’t many be happier if Major League Baseball had decided Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire didn’t dope because they said they didn’t do it?
And Olympian Marion Jones and a long list of others, wouldn’t it have been better if they’d all been cleared and we could go on believing in them?
There are so many in sport who wanted to win so bad who have sworn they weren’t involved with doping only to have the truth to turn out the opposite. Dallas might be the exception. Let’s all hope that is the case.
Because if it’s not true, the Iditarod just made a dangerous gamble with its integrity.
Correction: Mark McGwire’s name was misspelled in the original version of this story.