Mining company joins Iditarod's principal sponsors

Mike Campbell

A new principal sponsor has joined the Iditarod Trail Sled Race, contributing $285,000 to the world's richest sled dog race that in recent years has been buffeted by financial woes.

The mining company Donlin Creek LLC will join GCI, Anchorage Chrysler Dodge and Exxon Mobil as principal sponsors. Each firm contributes at least a quarter-million dollars.

Donlin Creek is aiming to develop a gold mine 13 miles north of Crooked Creek near the Kuskokwim River. The Kuskokwim Corporation, a consortium of 10 upriver villages closest to Donlin, owns most of the surface land in the proposed mine area. The subsurface land is owned by Calista Corporation, the Native regional corporation.

"It seemed like a good organization to partner with, considering that our proposed site is in the same area the Iditarod passes through," said Kurt Parkan, Donlin Creek's external affairs manager. "There's a romantic history associated with gold mining, and a romantic idea associated with dog mushing in Alaska -- so it seemed like a good fit."

Mining and mushing have long been linked here. During the early 1900s, sled dogs helped transport miners to some Alaska gold fields. At one point, the town of Iditarod, which is not far from Donlin Creek's proposed site, boasted a population estimated around 10,000 as gold mining boomed.

"It takes a lot of resources to stage this race," Iditarod executive director Stan Hooley said. "And Donlin has a real interest in this state and being a part of something that's important to the people of this state."

Beyond Donlin and the three other principal sponsors, 11 businesses are what the Iditarod calls "lead dog" sponsors contributing $100,000, six are "team dog" sponsors contributing $25,000 and 14 are "wheel dog" sponsors contributing $10,000.

Wells Fargo, a principal sponsor last year, has dropped down to lead-dog status.

About 11 months ago, the Iditarod announced a funding shortfall of nearly $1 million that had piled up over the previous year as sponsors facing tough economic times withdrew their support. Among the losses were television and video deals that were not renewed and sharp cutbacks by former heavyweight sponsors such as Cabela's and Chevron.

In response, the purse paid to the top mushers to Nome shriveled for a second consecutive year. A purse that was $925,000 in 2008 was cut 43 percent to about $525,000 when the 2010 race began in March.

Mushers, including now four-time-defending champion Lance Mackey, protested.

"This is a huge, huge blow, not only to mushers but to the sport in general," he said at the time. "There's a lot of us who have pretty much devoted our lives to making a career of racing dogs."

Trying to balance the losses, the Iditarod signed Exxon in February to a five-year deal as a principal sponsor -- and now has added another.

"It's a huge step in the right direction for us," Hooley said. "It's certainly not a secret that we've had our ups and downs the last couple of years as things went south economically in this country. But it's not just sponsorships that makes this race successful."

Some 60-65 percent of the Iditarod's annual budget of more than a million dollars comes from revenue generated by T-shirt sales, Iditarod memberships, race entry fees, raffles and subscriptions to the Iditarod Insider video and information service offered by the race's website.

The Iditarod budget is adopted in May, for the year beginning July 1 -- well before money starts to roll in.

"Now it's up to us to raise the money necessary," Hooley said. "I'm feeling good about where we're at, and I'm committed to getting us back on comfortable ground."

He said the forecast was for the Iditarod to earn gross revenue of just over $4 million, with expenses totaling $3.4 million, allowing the race to retire some of its debt.

"If you look back at history of the Iditarod," said Hooley, who's run the organization for 17 years, "some years have been better than others. We're in business of reinvesting all our profitability back into staging the world's premier sled dog race."

Still, he maintained the race will retire debt "before we make changes to the purse.

"We all want to get to the same place . . . where it's as financially rewarding as the mushers want it to be."

Hooley said the deal with Donlin was for two years, and Parkan added that he expected the relationship would last longer.

"Everybody loves the Iditarod," he said. "And they needed sponsorships. We wanted to participate to keep that organization strong."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.