DENVER – With another Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race done, more Iditarod sponsors departed, and another yuge Iditaord money-making idea gone bust, it’s time to talk about what ails Alaska’s Last Great Race.
And what better time could there be for this discussion than in a time when Alaskans and many, many others deserve a break from ever-escalating COVID-19 fears.
Rabid Iditarod fans can stop reading here. Most of what follows will just elevate your blood pressure. And you surely don’t want to hear you’re part of the problem, though you are.
Oh you are.
Attacking Alaska Airlines, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge or any other business moving on as a sponsor of the 1,000-mile race that costs $3 million to $4 million per year to stage does nothing to help the race find new sponsors. It does the opposite.
Businesses struggle to survive in a world where markets constantly shift and change. What constitutes a good marketing strategy today might not be a good marketing strategy a year from now let alone five or 10 years from now.
Few companies want to get into a sponsorship situation where the damage from getting out might be greater than any benefit the company ever got from being in.
Alaska Airlines supported the Iditarod for 40 years and when it decided to change tack the thanks it got from some Iditarod fans was the threat to never again fly on the the nation’s sixth-largest airline.
The airline didn’t grow to that size by focusing all its attention on a state with fewer people than the city of Indianapolis. Alaska Air went national long ago and now does far more business Outside than inside the 49th state.
There is no way to know with 100 percent certainty whether the company’s decision to give up on Iditarod stemmed from pressure from the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) as it claims, or not, as the company contends.
But it’s really irrelevant because PETA isn’t the Iditarod’s biggest problem.
Relevancy is the Iditarod’s biggest problem.
I was in this mile-high city on the edge of the Rocky Mountains for a week just before the Iditarod start. Wherever I went – Costco, King Soopers (the Colorado version of Fred Meyer), REI, Whole Foods, a few restaurants – I made a point of chatting people up about Alaska and a couple Alaska issues in particular.
One of those was Iditarod. Few had heard of it. The ones that had wanted to know if it was the dog race held “in Alaska in the winter.”
The start of March was not winter here. The start of March isn’t winter in most of the United States or the rest of the world. There is a reason the Winter Olympics are held in January and February.
The reason is marketing. The International Olympic Committee recognized from the start that the winter games would attract the most attention when people are focused on winter sports instead of thinking about summer activities ahead.
Denver was thinking about spring in March.
With the planet warming, Iditarod has in recent years fretted over whether there will be enough snow and cold in Anchorage to maintain the race’s historic, first-Saturday-of-March start. What it ought to be fretting over is getting the race in sync with the winter season in America and Europe where the potential fans live.
Why? Because all sporting events live and die on fan interest, and Iditarod badly needs more fans.
Dog mushing today appears to be one of the smallest – if not the smallest – niche sport in the country. It has a noisy, vocal core of boosters, but they are few in number.
In ranking sports participation by popularity, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts walking at the top with 30 percent of the population over age 15 participating in some way and wrestling at the bottom with a participation rate of 0.01 percent.
Sled dog sports don’t even make the list, although equestrian sports sneak in at 0.4 percent.
Spectator popularity for sled-dog sports is harder to quantify. Most attempts to rank spectator sports rely on TV viewership data, and the Iditarod is not on TV.
Long ago, it was regularly featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but in the last two decades television networks – even small cable networks – haven’t been able to attract enough eyeballs to make Iditarod pay.
The online army of Wikipedia, in attempting to catalog “Sports in the United States,” doesn’t even mention sled-dog sports although it lists a lot of other esoteric activities from sledding and surfing to disc golf and dodgeball along with the well-known, big-time games: professional football, baseball, basketball, motorsports, soccer golf, hockey and tennis.
The National Football League (NFL) is the elephant in lineup followed by the National Basketball Association (NBA); Major League Baseball, once “the national past time,” and the up-trending soccer, according to a Gallup poll.
Football was picked by 37 percent of Americans as their favorite sport to watch with soccer at 9 percent, and the other ball sports scattered between.
When Neilsen, a TV rating service, ranked sports in 2016, the results were similar although it put the National Hockey League (NHL) ahead of soccer at that time followed by golf, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), NCAA basketball and football, NASCAR, IndyCar, and boxing.
Iditarod was not ranked. It is a down-market sport somewhere behind a lot of other down-market sports from X-games to professional cycling to yacht racing and even darts, which has enough of a following that BBC America airs Premier League competitions.
The Iditarod hoped it could attract that sort of traffic when it began the “Iditarod Insider,” a pay-per-view, online, video “news” service whereby the race covers itself as if it were NASCAR. The Insider appears to have generated about 1 percent as much attention as darts.
As a federally recognized non-profit corporation, Iditarod is required to file an Internal Revenue Service Form 990 reporting its revenues. It latest filing in 2018 reported Insider generated $375,615 in revenue.
Insider packages vary in cost by the services the viewer selects, but presuming every viewer bought the lowest cost package at about $20, the numbers would reflect fewer than 19,000 people paying to watch.
The greater the number of people buying the more expensive packages, the fewer viewers there would be.
Iditarod.com does attract more eyeballs online. The website which offers limited coverage for free, hits a nice peak in traffic when the race starts and finishes, and the race has long been a major traffic generator for ADN.com, the website of the state’s largest newspaper.
But in general, the Iditarod’s fan base is small bordering on tiny.
Because of that, from a purely business standpoint, Iditarod sponsorship would appear a bad investment for anything but a solely Alaska-based business or an Outside company looking to buy some goodwill in the 49th state as ExxonMobil, the oil giant that fouled Prince William Sound with crude, and Donlin Mine have done with their Iditarod sponsorships.
For a company in the travel industry doing most of its business Outside – say a company like Alaska Airlines – something like esports looks like a better investment than Iditarod.
“As competitive gaming cements itself in the popular culture, global investors, brands, media outlets, and consumers are all paying attention. Total esports viewership is expected to grow at a 9 percent compound annual growth rate between 2019 and 2023, up from 454 million in 2019 to 646 million in 2023, per Business Insider Intelligence estimates. That puts the audience on pace to nearly double over a six-year period as the 2017 audience stood at 335 million.”
If you really want to consider the existential threat Iditarod faces, this is it. In the Age of the Internet, commerce isn’t the only thing moving into the online world. Everything is moving into the online world.
Kids don’t grow up reading Jack London and tales of northern sled dogs anymore. They grow up playing virtual reality games on their computers.
It is hard to avoid wondering if an event built on preserving the Alaska sled dog and the legacy of the man on the trail can survive in a world rushing full speed into the tubes.
The Iditarod might seem the be-all to end-all to 20,000 or so diehard fans subscribing to the Insider, but to most of the world Iditarod is a who cares.
The businesses that have in the past signed on as major sponsors of Iditarod in hopes of using it leverages sales of winter outdoor gear or clothing – most notably Timberland and later Cabela’s – have come and gone not because of animal right’s groups but because of markets.
Hunting and fishing are the bread and butter of Cabela’s, “World’s Foremost Outfitter.” The company could care less what PETA thinks. It didn’t leave Iditarod because of PETA. It left Iditarod because a costly sponsorship wasn’t doing anything to help its bottom line.
You can bet your .44-caliber Magnum handgun that if Cabela’s had found its link to Iditarod worth millions of dollars per year, it would still be a major sponsor.
Which brings us the last great Iditarod hope, a Norwegian company as little known in the U.S. as Iditarod.
Aker Biomarine built a business selling krill as feed to salmon farms and now hopes to expand into dogfood sales by creating what it bills as the “QrillPet Arctic World Series.” The series brings together long-distance sled dog races in Alaska, Minnesota, Russia and Norway in an attempt to maximize their marketing power.
QRILL Pet is the company’s krill-based, dietary additive for dog food. The company claims it offers nutritionally beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids with “superior bioavailability.”
The U.S dog food market is a potentially lucrative one for QRILL. The U.S. pet food market was estimated to be worth $24.6 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $30 billion by 2022, according to Statista, a data-tracking website.
What the exact arrangement between QRILL and Iditarod is not clear. An Iditarod statement in October said it “joined forces” with QRILL.
“We are proud to be a part of QPAWS, along with the Femundlopet, Volga Quest and John Beargrease,” said Iditarod’s CEO Rob Urbach. “With the (QRILL) 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.”
QRILL would appear to be picking up the costs of Insider. The Iditarod’s Form 990 report it cost almost $259,000 to produce the Iditarod programs in 2108, which meant the Insider netted only about $117,000 for Iditarod.
The race did better on gaming, primarily raffles, that netted almost $500,000 and royalties from the commercial use of the Iditarod name which brought in $153,000.
Race organizers thought this year, as they once thought with Insider, that they could make millions off betting, but that appears to have turned into a bit of a bust, as well.
An “Iditarod Trifecta” built around picking the race winner, the winning time and the number of dogs to finish in the team attracted only 560 betters. The winning bet netted $2,240 for a man from New Jersey.
“The Iditarod is striving the make fandom more immersive and Trifecta was our first attempt to gamify,” Urbach said. “We are already planning on improving the experience next year to enable a more rewarding engagement.”
The race is going to have to improve a lot of it hopes to support itself with its in-house enterprises, but it might have hit some sort of jackpot when this year’s race was won by Norwegian Thomas Wærner, a musher sponsored by Aker’s QRILL Pet.
This had to have made the race’s new partner proud. Whether Aker can use Wærner and the Iditarod to sell huge volumes of its pet-food additive remains to be seen, and that will decide how long this great new Iditarod hope hangs around.
It could last years, or it could join that long list of former Iditarod sponsors – Alaska Airlines, Anchorage Chrysler, Coca-Cola, Costco, Jack Daniel’s, Maxwell House, Nestlé, Panasonic, Pizza Hut, Rite Aid, Safeway, State Farm, and Wells Fargo – that PETA claims to have driven from the race whether the claim is true or not.
What is true, and what matters, is that all those lost sponsorships have hurt.