FAIRBANKS — Cherrie Forness can only speculate how big the Nenana Ice Classic jackpot would be if organizers could sell tickets on the Internet.
“I think our sales would go crazy,” Forness, the Ice Classic’s manager, said. “I think it would open a lot of doors for us.”
Would a $1 million payout be possible?
“Maybe,” Forness said.
But a state statute governing charitable gaming in Alaska prohibits the Ice Classic from selling tickets using broadcasting, which includes the Internet, according to Jeff Prather, gaming group supervisor for the state Department of Revenue’s tax division.
“They can promote their activities on the Internet but they can’t sell tickets on the Internet,” Prather said.
That’s a bummer for the Ice Classic, Forness said. Given the unique history of the event, the fact that it’s a long-standing Alaska tradition and the nature of the Internet, Forness has no doubt the Ice Classic would be able to sell thousands of tickets online.
“I have a lot of people who want to buy them online,” she said. “We get quite a few requests for that.”
Now in its 94th year, the Ice Classic is Alaska’s version of the lottery. Thousands of people pay $2.50 per ticket to guess what date and time to the minute a tripod set up on the Tanana River ice at Nenana will move downstream and trip a clock that is wired to shore.
Last year’s jackpot of $279,030 was split between three winners when the ice went out on April 29 at 9:06 a.m. Alaska Standard Time
The richest jackpot in the 93-year history of the Ice Classic was $335,000 in 2000, but the payout has dropped over the last decade.
The jackpots the last two years have been under $300,000.
Ice Classic officials don’t keep track of how many tickets are sold to residents in the Lower 48 or elsewhere out of Alaska, but Forness said the number is significant.
This year, Forness said, organizers have sold about 5,000 tickets out of the Nenana office, but that number includes tickets bought by Alaska residents in villages where tickets aren’t sold.
Tourists passing through Nenana during the summer buy tickets at the town’s visitor center, and other residents from the Lower 48 mail their guesses and money for tickets to the Ice Classic office in Nenana.
“People just send us their guesses and money, and we fill the tickets out for them,” Forness said. “We make copies of them so we have a record of it.”
Forness said she plans to talk to the event’s board of directors about approaching local legislators to change the statute to allow the Ice Classic to sell tickets online.
The Ice Classic already gets plenty of free publicity in the Lower 48 because of the unique nature of the event.
In past years, stories have appeared in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, on CNN and in many other media outlets.
“We get all kinds of little plugs,” Fornes said. “A few years ago I was on ‘Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?’ (a public radio show) and I got a zillion calls about it.”
The Ice Classic also has a website, but with no counter on it, Forness has no idea how many people visit the site each year.
The size of this year’s jackpot hasn’t been set. The deadline to buy tickets is midnight Tuesday.
With almost 250 different ticket vendors around the state, Forness has no way to gauge ticket sales at this point.
“Some of my (vendors) are asking for more tickets, so that’s a good sign,” she said.
Officials measured the ice on Thursday and it was 41.5 inches, the thinnest it’s been at this time of year since 2006. Last year, the ice measured 50.4 inches on March 31.