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In fundraising pitch, Iditarod planners say financial woes could jeopardize epic sled dog race

The dogs of rookie Sean Williams of Chugiak wait at the start of the 2024 Iditarod on March 2 in Anchorage, Alaska. Williams scratched on March 15.
Andrew Kitchenman
Alaska Beacon
The dogs of rookie Sean Williams of Chugiak wait at the start of the 2024 Iditarod on March 2 in Anchorage, Alaska. Williams scratched on March 15.

The future of the “Last Great Race” is uncertain, officials said in an appeal to supporters. The message comes at a time when major Iditarod sponsors have dropped out and inflation has increased the cost of participation.

On April 3, race officials emailed fans to say one of the race’s key fundraisers, its winter raffle, isn’t getting typical levels of support. With five days before the draw, only about 60% of the tickets have sold.

The email suggested that the race may not happen next year if the tickets do not sell out. “This may sound dramatic, but it is absolutely the unfortunate truth,” organizers wrote. “Without this fundraiser and the sale of these tickets, we would not be able to put this race on each year."

This week the race was dealt another blow when a state legislative committee nixed a $1.4 million funding request that race officials said would have buoyed the struggling endeavor.

On April 1, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, proposed a $1.4 million grant from the state budget to the Iditarod Trail Committee, which operates the race.

“I thought it would be a popular amendment,” Josephson said. “And I think it probably pencils out in terms of economic gain to the state.”

“Who can vote no against the Iditarod?” said Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan.

Six members of the 11-person finance committee could — and did — vote no, and the amendment was defeated.

Rep. Will Stapp, R-Fairbanks, was one of the "no" votes and said on April 2 that no one would say that the Iditarod isn’t important, but that there are a significant number of budgetary unknowns facing lawmakers, and those must be addressed before considering a grant. He said there may be opportunities to add funding for the race later in the budget-writing process.

“There are many other bites at the apple,” Stapp said.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, said his no vote wasn’t a vote against the race itself.

“It was more along the lines of just being fiscally conservative. It’s an issue I don’t know a lot about. I’m very much a supporter of the Iditarod race and, quite frankly, would like to learn a little more about [the issue],” Edgmon said.

Race officials did not respond to a request for comment on April 2.

It has been a hard year for the race: three dogs died on the trail, ending its five-year streak without a dog death, and five more dogs died in training when teams were struck by snowmachines.

Several major race sponsors have ended their support for the race in the last several years, after criticism from the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Those include the pet food company Nutanix, Alaska Airlines, ExxonMobil, and Coca Cola.

The loss of major sponsors isn’t the only problem. Race officials have cited economic realities.

Inflation has increased the cost of dog food substantially. Some mushers report spending more than $40,000 per year to feed their teams. Many mushers are also reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel restrictions closed off opportunities to offer sled dog tours to tourists, a source of off-season income for many.

James Brooks | Alaska Beacon
Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.