T he Iditarod attracts the top dogs. Among those signing up last week for the 2009 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were five winners of the event, including 2008 champion Lance Mackey. Overall, 68 hopeful mushers pledged to brave the grueling 1,100-mile sled dog race in an event at Wasilla's Iditarod headquarters.
A longtime international draw for the Mat-Su Valley, the Iditarod continues to be a strong event that generates tourism and interest in Alaska and our local communities. Not only does the Iditarod generate worldwide media coverage at its Anchorage ceremonial start and the Valley restart, hosting an off-season sign-up blowout keeps more year-round attention on the race.
That next year's competitors seem willing to pay an increased entry fee - $4,000 for 2009, up $1,000 over this year's fee - is a good sign of the Iditarod's strong base of interest within the sport of mushing. In addition to the fee increase, operational expenses have cut the overall guaranteed purse from $935,000 in 2008 to $660,000 next year.
We're pleased to see such a strong turnout and support from Iditarod mushers and hope the increased entry fee and decreased prize money from the event won't hamper the race's overall participation in 2009. With recent increases in fuel prices and other services race organizers can expect to pay, it's understandable some belt-tightening would be in order.
At the same time it's costing mushers more to feed, train and care for their dogs. While finishing in the money in the Iditarod has unparalleled cachet in the sport of dog mushing, the dogs and mushers have to eat, and not all of them have deep-pocketed sponsors like some of the headliners.
We love the Iditarod and watching greats like Mackey and other former champions Mitch Seavey, Jeff King, Martin Buser and Rick Swenson. But it's a tough spot to raise the fee 25 percent and cut the purse.
Cabela's and Wells Fargo Bank are major corporate sponsors of the Iditarod. While we appreciate keeping the Iditarod as one of the last, great Alaska adventures, it may be time to consider more corporate sponsorships to keep the event's financial shortfalls from the competitors.
The Iditarod has steadied itself financially in recent years. Now it's time to take another good, hard look at those companies that would like to buy into this world-class event and carefully consider what they can bring without diluting the character of the race.
The world's top mushers are loyal to the Last Great Race, but can the field afford to return for long if this year's hiccup of paying more for a smaller purse becomes an annual occurrence?
We hope we don't have to find out.