Update: Wærner seals the deal for the QRILL Pet Mushing Team with a victory of more than five and half hours over three-time champ Mitch Seavey.
Only months ago, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race announced it had “joined forces” with Norway’s Aker Biomarine, and today Aker’s main man is on his way to winning Alaska’s trademarked “Last Great Race.”
Forty-six-year-old Norwegian Thomas Wærner, the owner of Berserk kennel based in Synnfjell and the titular head of The QRILL Pet Mushing Team – was this morning resting with his team in White Mountain, the Iditarod’s pivotal penultimate checkpoint.
Dog teams are required by race rules to stay there for eight hours. Historically, if the race leader has a more than an hour on the next team when that stop is made, he or she will win unless the weather intervenes.
The last time that happened was in 2014 when four-time champ Jeff King from Denali Park headed off into a storm, got blown of his sled, lost his team, had to be rescued, and dropped out of the race.
Behind him, Aliy Zirke from Two Rivers in Central Alaska made it through to the Safety checkpoint only about 20 miles from the finish line. Hearing reports of “hurricane force winds” ahead, she holed up there to wait until the storm eased.
That opened the door for third-place musher Dallas Seavey to lead the race into Nome and claim the second of his four victories.
Seavey, who was entangled in a 2017 doping case after finishing second in that year’s race,isn’t running the Iditarod this year. Instead, as another member of The QRILL Pet Mushing Team, he is providing commentary for QRILL Pet Arctic World Series (QRILLPAWS) coverage of the race.
He shouldn’t have much trouble predicting this one a win for Wærner, who is now five hours in front of Seavey’s dad, Mitch, in White Mountain. The elder Seavey’s team was slightly slower than Wærner on the run in from Elim, but Mitch did manage to add about another half hour to his lead on Montana’s Jessie Royer.
There is no hint Mitch can close the gap on Wærner along the coast tonight with the forecast calling for 24 degrees, light snow and a 10 mph wind.
“Thomas the beserker in the lead,” the QRILLPAWS website was headlining this morning. The video report that went along with the latest news was unfortunately unavailable except for a fee.
Money, money, money
QRILL PAWS’ You-Tube-channel coverage of the the Iditarod started with the promise of free, global video coverage of the race, but for reasons unexplained U.S. coverage has now moved behind the Iditarod’s paywall.
In January when Aker officially unveiled the World Series of races in Minnesota, Alaska, Norway and Russia, it said “each race will also be broadcasted live throughout the race, on the QRILL PAWS YouTube channel, open for all to watch.
“QRILL PAWS, owned by Aker BioMarine, was created to promote the sport of long-distance dog mushing and to capture the world-class dog care that the sport is famous for. The QRILL PAWS series is set to deliver a daily highlight show to broadcasters and news agencies….”
A query to Aker’s three-person media team asking what happened to the “open-for-all” coverage has yet to be answered.
The Iditarod is and has been facing financial problems. A number of sponsors from the Lower 48 – or Outside as Alaskans call the rest of the country – abandoned the race last year under pressure from animal rights activists who contend the 1,000-mile, 10-day race is too hard on dogs.
This year, long time sponsors Alaska Airlines and Anchorage Chrysler-Dodge Jeep Ram announced the 2020 Iditarod would be their last race. People for the Ethical Treatment (PETA) tried to claim victory for the Alaska Airlines departure, but the airline denied that was the case.
In an official statement, it suggested the move was simply a reorientation of marketing efforts, saying it was proud to have “been part of the Iditarod for more than 40 years and (is) proud of our sponsorship, which was focused on dog health and safety. As we transition to our new corporate giving strategy, LIFT, with an emphasis on creating opportunities for young people in the communities where we fly….”
Alaska Air long sponsored the Leonhard Seppala Humanitarian Award given the musher veterinarians believed provided the best dog care during the race.
Behind the scenes, there were rumblings the company wanted more say over dog care in the wake of the Seavey doping scandal. Some of the race’s 40 to 45 volunteer veterinarians were not happy when the Iditarod Trail Committee resolved a doping battle with Seavey by apologizing to him and saying it believed his doped team had somehow been sabotaged, although there is no evidence to back that idea.
The Iditarod also terminated its relationship with Morrie Craig, who headed the doping-control program. After that happened, the program’s on-the-ground coordinator in Alaska quit. She has since raised questions about the adequacy of the new doping-control program.
Death in the family
The Anchorage-Chrysler departure from Iditarod had been expected by some after the death of 78-year-old, company founder Rod Udd in 2017. Up until his death, Udd was the Iditarod’s most benevolent fan.
“Udd is known as ‘Idita-Rod’ due to his obsessive love of the race,” reporter Brian Phillips once observed in ESPN’s Grantland.
Many in business in Alaska long believed that under Udd’s leadership Anchorage Chrysler – which annually awarded race winners a new Dodge truck worth almost as much as the purse – was putting far more into the Last Great Race than it was getting out of it in advertising value.
Businesses have had trouble linking sales to Iditarod promotion.
A major outdoor retailer and one-time major Iditarod sponsor – Cabela’s – scaled back its sponsorship of the race in 2010 and finally ended it altogether . A Nebraska-based company that built a huge franchise around the sales of hunting and fishing gear, Cabela’s joined the Iditarod in the 2000s as a prime sponsor and a backer of King.
At the time, the company believed it could leverage the two to boost its sales of cold-weather gear. It was soon marketing a whole line of Iditarod-themed outdoor gear endorsed by King.
Most of it is now gone or rebranded as “Trans-Alaska Cold Weather Clothing,”and there is nothing to indicate this shift has anything to do with PETA, which hates hunting and firearms more than it does Iditarod. Both of the former remain mainstays of Cabela’s business.
Cabela’s bailed in 2010 when a major recession hit the U.S., and the it was forced to weigh which of its marketing schemes were posting the biggest returns. Iditarod clearly didn’t measure up.
Before Cabela’s entered the scene, The Timberland Company was a major Iditarod sponsor. A New Hampshire-based shoe company trying to broaden its sales of outdoor apparel in the 1980s, it also left Iditarod after concluding the race wasn’t a good marketing fit.
Had Iditarod sponsorship translated into tens of millions of dollars in profits for Timberland, Cabela’s, Alaska Airlines or other sponsors which have come and gone, there is little doubt that the company’s would have ignored anything PETA had to say – if they were even paying attention to a fringe organization which made its name as one of the country’s noisiest paper tigers.
A better fit
Today, the Iditarod’s major sponsors are the oil company ExxonMobil, the mining company Donlin Gold, and GCI, an Anchorage-based and built telecom and cable-TV company now owned by the Colorado-based Liberty Interactive Corp.
ExxonMobil and Donlin are engaged in what has been called “image sponsoring.”
Donlin is trying to win approval for construction of a major gold mine along the Kuskokwim River in Central Alaska. It is a mine that has proposed using natural gas to power its operations, and it has suggested the natural gas would be shipped from a terminal in Cook Inlet via a gasline along the route of the Iditarod Trail.
Image also attaches to GCI’s involvement, but it has a practical interest in that it is the largest provider of cellular phone service in rural Alaska. It offers coverage along most of the Iditarod from Unalakleet for 250 miles north and west to Nome.
And then there is Aker, which Iditarod bills as a partner.
“We are proud to be a part of QPAWS, along with the Femundlopet (in Norway), Volga Quest (in Russia) and John Beargrease (in Minnesota),” Iditarod CEO Rob Urbach said in announcing the relationship in October.“With the investments in digital visualization technology and innovative television production, we have great confidence that we will be showcasing our sport in a more experiential and compelling way.”
What exactly the relationship between Iditarod and Aker has never been made publicly clear, but QPAWS appears to be picking up some of the production costs for the “Iditarod Insider,” the race’s answer to the NFL Network.
When the online, pay-for-view operation launched back before the new millennium, Iditarod was hopeful it would bring in millions of dollars per year. Those hopes have never been fulfilled.
The race has not revealed its 2020 budget, but its Internal Revenue Service Form 990 filing for 2018 – the latest available – reports the costs of putting on the Iditarod top $4.5 million even with the majority of the race-managing labor contributed by volunteers.
Insider revenues in 2018 were reported as $375,615 with a cost of $258,399 for a net return of $117,216. Clearly if Iditarod hopes to support itself with the Insider, it needs to grow the number of online viewers significantly.
Aker clearly believes sled-dog races can be more useful in selling pet food than in selling outerwear. The idea is that if it can show its pet food additive makes Iditarod dogs run faster, a lot of pet owners will want to feed dog foods with that additive.
“‘Specialized in high-quality products derived from Antarctic krill, we have developed an ingredient that will enhance your pet food brand. Our product delivers great nutritional benefits to pets and originates from one of the world’s most sustainable fisheries.”
A Wærner victory in the Iditarod can’t help but boosts the idea that Qrill Pet is a key ingredient in the dog food of champions. How that translates to the Iditarod being a sporting event more will want to watch only time will tell.