Iditarod purse decreases, entry fee increases, mushers left destitute on wind swept snow bank! Are they capable of negotiating their own future?By your consummately ill-informed correspondent, Joe Runyan, 1989 Iditarod champ.Hang on to your dog leash, illiquidity in the economy and high oil prices have impacted Mushdom. In absolute terms, Iditarod aficionados now know that the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors, in an act of fiscal conservatism, reduced the purse from 2008’s $935,000 to $660,000 for 2009 and, in a gut wrenching blow to the exchequer of resolutely committed Iditarod participants, increased the entry fee to an onerous $4,000.What that means to most mushers is that the standard norm is working perfectly. Mushers are always on the verge of poverty, so these recent developments only perfect the argument. This leads us to the second truth—the Iditarod, in spite of occasional stretches of extraordinary bad management and excoriating coverage by the press, constant badgering by animal rights extremists, continues to survive. In short, the event and its participants transcend criticism. The general public simply likes the Iditarod.The Iditarod is the flagship of Mushdom. All perceptions about mushing are symbolized by the Iditarod, which is now rising and falling in storm seas on the decisions of the Iditarod Trail Committee. But, let’s get past the standard AP, Alaska TV, and the Anchorage Daily News analysis and look at the underlying causes of Mushdom’s angst. It is not rising fuel prices, or the FAA’s reluctance to allow volunteer pilots to engage in commercial freight activities, the salaries of ITC staff workers, or the high maintenance costs of facilities in village checkpoints. Mushers are just not negotiating well enough.Let’s be honest and forthright. The Iditarod Trail Committee is an elaborately organized scheme operated under the ruse of the non-profit banner, to further aggrandize mushers—not volunteer pilots, hay brokers, freight companies, media outlets, and thrill seekers. That’s what is irritating serious mushers from Tierra del Fuego to Norway. The Iditarod was supposed to be a nice pay day industry for mushers, but things have gotten confused. The dog team has snapped the snub line tied to the corporate money tree, and is now running without adult supervision down the trail.In simple terms, there are two sled dog racing economic models. The first is the non-profit model exemplified by the Iditarod Trail Committee, which provides certain protections and privileges, but can get out of control, as we are now seeing with the Iditarod non-profit organization. Sometimes the Iditarod loses focuses, and forgets that the purpose, despite protestations from lofty thinkers, is the economic well-being of mushers (always the #1 priority—in my opinion). Money isn’t everything, but a purse is an excellent measure of the success and prestige of a sporting event. Running a non-profit requires a board of directors (an uncertain entity). The Iditarod directors, in fits of political magnanimity, occasionally see themselves as social engineers and forget that their mandate is to direct the maximum amount of resources (money) to the mushers and the minimum to the organization. This is a failing I’ll address in a moment. The second model is the owner operated race. The now defunct Alpirod is a text book example (but there are others). Nikola Bovali, an Italian publisher and promoter, became fascinated with the Iditarod when Armen Kachikian—a young man who had traveled in Alaska—won one of his TV shows and declared that he wanted to run the Iditarod. Nikola traveled to Anchorage and watched the start of the Iditarod. Impressed with the possibilities, he hired Ric Swenson, the 5X champ, to help him establish a race course in the European Alps in 1988. Using his own money, he organized the Alpirod, created media frenzy with his privately hired TV crews and journalists, attracted major sponsors, hired Alaskan mushers to appear, and created an event that entranced European fans.Unlike the Iditarod, his admirable goal was to aggrandize himself, not the mushers. He did this magnificently when he sold the race at a nice profit several years later. Nevertheless, Nikola was a promoter and knew he must negotiate with his “performers,” the absurdly eccentric characters known as mushers. To do that, he exercised his considerable promotional instincts and sold the powerful marketing value of the sled dog symbol. He once asked me with a quizzical smile, “Do you want to be a hero in Italy?” He promoted products of all kinds and used his mushers as the props, creating a nice little business that also paid his mushers. The more his mushers were paid, the more money he made.Sensing his success, and sometimes, like rock stars, mistaking their new found public notoriety as genuine, the mushers began to negotiate for more money. In my opinion, it was Nikola’s genius and promotion that was giving us a free ride to Europe—but, you have to give some of the mushers credit for discovering their inner self and expanded over inflated sense of importance. Nikola negotiated with everybody—the press, potential sponsors, mushers, and even the crew that worked for him. You had to prove your worth, but it was a good system. Everyone got an appropriate piece of the action. Nikola performed all a great service for us. He was serving to insure our maximum aggrandizement. He limited competitors, leveraged services, and looked to the bottom line.This is exactly what mushers need to do to survive the present Iditarod crisis!For starters, fielding one hundred mushers for the Iditarod is a budget killer. A pundit estimated that it costs the Iditarod $12,000 per musher to stage the event, which is a lot of money, but the true fact is that the slower mushers are extraordinarily expensive. Lance Mackey crosses the finish line in less than ten days, and then hangs around Nome waiting for another week for the rest of the pack to dribble across the finish line—taxing the patience and resources of the support organization. Bottom line, it’s a huge expense to support the back of the pack. I ran the Iditarod in 2008 after a fifteen year hiatus and blistered the trail in 61st place with a 13 day race. Honestly, it was one of my best adventures, but it wasn’t my best Iditarod. I was a drain on the system, no doubt about it. Exhausted veterinarians, burnt out volunteers, and exhausted villagers would wish me good luck and wave, “Goodbye Joe”, but could hardly wait to see me advancing to Nome.Limiting the race to say, 50 qualified competitors, would save the Iditarod money—maybe a million dollars. Media coverage and revenue from sponsors would remain the same, the support organization would shrink, the purse could expand dramatically, and the public’s perception that the Iditarod is the world’s premier adventure race would broaden. Most importantly, the Iditarod’s liabilities and obligations to take care of the back of the pack, a group generally dedicated to an adventure rather than racing, would evaporate. Enjoying wine and a pasta late evening dinner, and considering his business, I am sure a businessman like Nikola Bovali would certainly axe the field in half. As for the half that didn’t get to go racing—well—taking another bite of linguini somewhat philosophically, Nikola would say they would just have to race another event and qualify at a higher standard. He might even organize another race like the Nenana to Nome Serum run for serious adventurers at a fraction of the cost.Secondly, to save the Iditarod from a catastrophic dilution of funding and prestige, mushers need to take control of their destiny. The two personalities that could lead the pack are Lance Mackey and Ric Swenson. Lance Mackey has earned the right to be called the best living musher on earth and he is now the face of Iditarod, not to mention the media magnet that has drawn the attention of a curious public transfixed by the Iditarod. He is a mainstream professional athlete that can be seen on TV mixing with Peyton Manning at the ESPY awards, and every sports journalist from New York to LA knows his story.Would you or I want to be Lance Mackey? I don’t think so, at least not on purpose. I saw him in Nome and asked him how he was feeling and he said in a moment of pure honesty that he was hurting so bad during the race he thought about crawling to the sled. But then he walked to the sled, and said the pain was nothing when you’re living. He is a story of a guy that got caught in a life or death predicament, and emerged with an unusual sense of his own destiny. Mackey is a personality, a mushing treasure which belongs to all of us, that has given the Iditarod new value and humanized it with a musher that the public recognizes and admires. Lance Mackey and the dozen or so mushers that are capable of challenging him in 2009 deserve respect. They need a premier event, including a well-deserved purse above the mellifluous Million Dollar mark, to showcase the sport of long distance mushing, the indestructible husky, and their wonderful skills. They cannot be expected to perform much longer if they are not offered a respectable pay day. It’s time to negotiate.Ric Swenson remains the indisputable 5X Iditarod champ, and after four decades is still competitive, and arguably one of the best dog care mushers on the trail. Besides his mushing acumen, Swenson has a photographic memory of Iditarod’s political history, and volunteers considerable chunks of his time on the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors. Plus, he is blunt; some would call him brutally to the point, and the guy that can most persuasively represent the musher’s point of view. He has cache and common sense.He’ll appear to hate it, but mushers should pick up the phone and call Swenson. Usually, the telephone conversation will extend to about ten seconds, when he will inform you that he has a lot of work to do, and hang up. If you are persistent and persuasive, he will listen. Still, ten seconds is enough to convince the all-time Iditarod Champ that it’s time to negotiate.Some readers will be quick to point out that I have made major philosophical errors and callously forgotten that mushers in the back of the Iditarod pack, with no competitive intentions, are people too. Or, that mushing is not about just making prize money, etc, etc.But I would counter. In this instance, it’s time to put on a show for the world and make good business decisions. Paring the race down to 50 or so qualified mushers that are interested in racing will relieve the Iditarod organization of immense overhead headaches. In addition, I think most would agree that a well funded, tightly organized, event with comprehensive media coverage will actually benefit all mushers. Think of it if you were a corporate sponsor entity looking for an image building investment. Suppose I told you that for the same amount of money your name could be plastered all over national TV and you would be acknowledged as the sponsor of the Last Great Race, featuring the finest mushers in the world competing for a cool $1 million dollar purse. Or, would you like to sponsor a race, for the same amount of money, that was advertised as a dying tradition, with smaller media coverage, whining participants and volunteers, and a wimpy, pathetic purse that has been reduced 30% from the previous year. You make the choice. It’s time to negotiate.I also have a few other opinions, since I have the mike. For starters (just my opinion) media coverage of the Iditarod is full of great images, but still lacks the in-depth discussions the sport needs. I worked for OLN TV, which has now morphed to Versus, on their first Iditarod show. Part of my job was to fly to New York for three weeks and help with the edit, and also work with Al Troutwig, the Versus announcer that you also see working the Tour de France and the Olympic Gymnastics. What I learned was the diametric difference between the Tour de France coverage and Iditarod coverage.While the Tour de France has comprehensive daily updates and expert announcers, the Iditarod has none. Watch the Tour de France and you cannot help but learn the subtleties of bicycle racing and begin to appreciate the nuances of the competition. I can watch the Tour de France for an hour while the peloton just pedals indifferently along in the French country side, and still enjoy it because I learn about the event.The Iditarod shows on Versus, on the other hand, are rich with images, but they are fast tracked like a disturbing three minute music video for rap music. I can hardly keep from blinking and the coverage is so generic that the viewer just gets the idea that the dogs pull the sled and they love pulling, occasionally they crash, and the musher loves the dogs, and the dogs love the musher. Then the race is over. That’s it.What happens is that footage shot on the Iditarod trail is sent back to Versus edit in Massachusetts or one of those mini-states on the East Coast as the race is in progress. The editors, who are very clever, assemble the story on a formulaic time line, and try to understand the event by reading internet postings and newspaper articles. I’ll guarantee you that there isn’t one person in the edit room who has even touched a sled dog, much less seen one for real. (OK, maybe one.) There is no insight, other than the use of images.(Note: Greg Heister does a great job with the Iditarod Insider, and consistently produces Emmy Award winning documentaries, but unfortunately his work is not on a widely viewed national or international platform—like Versus.)So, there it is, my solution to Iditarod Angst. Live like a non-profit, but think like a tycoon. Reduce the field to the most competitive 50 mushers. Save a million dollars. Raise the purse to $1 million plus. Attract media attention and sophisticated coverage with expert commentary. Allow Lance Mackey and his competitors to put on a show for the world. Give corporate sponsors a happy face by giving them promotional value via a re-invigorated Iditarod. It’s time to negotiate with a new headline, “Iditarod defies current economic trend, raises purse to $1 million, fascinates fans world wide, attracts media and sponsors.” Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe as well as South and North America. Winner of Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod, he now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997) is available from the author. Contact Joe at email@example.com.
I am a lover of all seasons, except for spring breakup in Alaska. This year