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Biggest race for Iditarod officials is raising $4 million fast

Jill Burke
One of musher Jim Lanier's sports frozen whiskers upon arrival at the checkpoint of Galena. Moving dropped dogs and flying out dog food is a big annual expense for the Iditarod. Loren Holmes photo

For Stan Hooley, executive director of the 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race, March Madness isn't about basketball. It's about how much money his organization can gin up in a few short weeks to sustain one of the most grueling competitions on Earth.

“We're like a Christmas retailer,” he said after a board meeting Friday morning in Anchorage. Iditarod finances are heavily dependent on money that flows in during the peak of fascination with the two-week race that lures mushers and their dog teams across nearly 1,000 miles of challenging Alaska winter terrain. The non-profit relies on fans to buy merchandise, pay to watch exclusive trail videos and analysis, buy raffle or banquet tickets, and cough up cash to catch a ride with a musher at the race's ceremonial start.

Hooley said nearly 70 percent of race revenue rolls in this time of year. And, the Iditarod doesn’t have much of a reserve bank account to cover expenses. The money raised during 2013 will go directly to pay for this year’s race, prompting what Hooley calls a “nerve racking” budget cycle.

Race will help fly out mushers' dog food 

Still, race organizers have increased this year’s the purse by $50,000 (or 9 percent) to $600,000, which will be divided among the top-30 finishers. Last year, champion Dallas Seavey won $50,400 and a new Dodge Ram pickup valued at $43,400. For the first time, the race will pay up to $1,000 of the cost mushers pay to fly bags of dog food to checkpoints along the trail to Nome.

“This is an expensive event to compete (in), stage and participate in.” Hooley said. “We wanted to make it easier to get mushers to the starting line.”

After the 2012 race, Hooley reported to the Iditarod Trail Committee Board of Directors that the organization raised $3.8 million in revenue that year. But after expenses, the net profit was a mere $180,074 – about half of what they'd hoped for. Sponsorships bring in nearly 40 percent of the money raised, and Hooley is proud that many top sponsors have been with the race more than a decade. Merchandise sales and the sale of race-related media coverage such as the Iditarod Insider help.

$4 million budget

Putting on the race eats up about half of Iditarod’s overall $4-million budget, with the rest going to general and administrative costs. Hooley himself earned an annual salary of $107,000 in 2010, the last year for which information was available, according to a database at the website guidestar.org. Iditarod Development Director Greg Bill made $91,000.

For 2013, the largest race expenses are the $600,000 purse, followed by the cost to insure and fuel the "Iditarod Air Force," a squadron of volunteer pilots that shuttles supplies, race officials, dropped dogs and Iditarod Insider videographers along the trail, Hooley said. He aims to start bringing in more cash so the race can build a bigger financial reserve, to build in greater stability for the years ahead.

“The success of the Iditarod finances depends on a lot of things. It's always a big unknown,” Hooley said. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com