Ice Classic organizers hope for hot turnout

Nenana contest builds toward higher jackpots

Posted: Monday, February 05, 2007

FAIRBANKS - As manager of the Nenana Ice Classic, Cherrie Forness wants to get Alaskans fired up about one of the state's coolest events.

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The only problem is figuring out how to do that.

Tickets for the annual guessing game, in which players pay $2.50 a chance to guess the exact time the Tanana River ice will go out in Nenana, went on sale Thursday. Forness is hoping this year's jackpot will climb back up to the magical $300,000 mark.

"I'd like to see it get a lot higher than that, but you do what you can do," Forness said. "We're trying to increase ticket sales."

Last year's jackpot of $270,500 was the lowest in 12 years and marked the second straight year the jackpot didn't hit $300,000.

"We're really kind of in a rut," Forness said.

Each year, a new 30-foot high wooden tripod is placed on the Tanana River ice at Nenana and a wire from the tripod is attached to a clock in a guarded shack on shore. When the ice moves, the wire trips and stops the clock.

The ice generally goes out in the last week of April or first week of May. The earliest breakup on record is April 20 and the latest is May 20.

Last year the ice went out on May 2 at 5:29 p.m. Alaska Standard Time. There were eight winning tickets, each one worth $33,812.50 before taxes.

About half the money from ticket sales goes to pay for expenses, and the Ice Classic donates a portion of the proceeds to nonprofit groups in Nenana, such as the local fire department or school.

Organizers spent the last two weeks distributing the bright-red ticket cans that have become synonymous with the Ice Classic to more than 200 ticket vendors around the state. Most of the cans are located in bars, convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, pull-tab parlors and liquor stores. There are more than 50 vendors in Fairbanks and North Pole.

This year, Forness is on a mission to increase interest in Alaska's richest guessing game, not to mention one of its longest-standing traditions. Now in its 91st year, the Ice Classic is older than most Alaskans.

"We're trying to make it so more people know about the Ice Classic and who we are," she said.

The only hitch is how to accomplish that. The Ice Classic is limited on what it can spend on advertising to just 5 percent of net ticket sales because it is a game of chance - a politically correct term for gambling.

The event's advertising budget usually runs somewhere around $15,000. While that may sound like a lot of money, it doesn't buy all that much advertising when you split it up between newspapers, radio and TV across the entire state. Tickets for the Ice Classic are sold from Ketchikan to Kotzebue and everywhere in between.

"It's not that we want to spend thousands and thousands on advertising, but we just have so much area to cover," said Forness.

Neither can the Ice Classic sell tickets on the Internet, which makes it practically impossible to market the event Outside.

"I don't know how else to go about it," Forness said of promoting the event.

Every now and then the event gets lucky and gets some free advertising, like last spring when Michael Feldman, host of the radio show "Whad'Ya Know" on National Public Radio Called to interview Forness.

"We got a lot of calls from that," Forness said.

There have also been stories published in newspapers about scientists using Ice Classic statistics to document global warming and climate change.

The Ice Classic spends most of its advertising money in the final two or three weeks that tickets are sold. The deadline for buying tickets is April 5, and many people wait until the last minute to see what the weather is doing.

"That's when people buy most of the tickets," she said.

Specifically, Forness would like to see more young people buying tickets. The Ice Classic has a loyal following of old-time Alaskans who have embraced the event over the years and continue to do so. But the event doesn't seem to appeal to the younger crowd, and Forness isn't sure how to get them hooked.

"Generally, when people start doing this they continue to do it," she said. "It's fun. It's not anything that can be rigged. People just like it."

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