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Iditarod sled race struggles for sponsorship

By Tracy Sabo, CNN
  • Musher donates prize from his '93 win: $50,000
  • Sponsorship falls $1 million short of race organizers' goal
  • Mushers usually have their own sponsors, say they're not in it for the cash

Willow, Alaska (CNN) -- Cash is of little to no use for mushers along the isolated frontier trail that marks the self-titled "Last Great Race on Earth." However, even the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has proven it's not immune to a struggling economy.

The race, now in its 38th year, took a major hit this year from sponsors and licensing fees on broadcast rights, which together make up 35 percent of the race's $4 million budget. Organizers found themselves $1 million shy of their goal.

Deep cuts in administration came first, but the race itself requires costly logistics to prepare 25 sites and remote checkpoints, including the staffing of volunteer veterinarians and newly added drug-testing sites required for mushers at points along the trail. A dwindling budget left the winner's purse in immediate jeopardy.

The 2004 Iditarod champion, Mitch Seavey, 49, of Seward, Alaska, didn't sweat it: "We don't race for money, you know. It's nice to have a payday and help cover expenses, but unless you win, you don't cover expenses anyway. And I don't think there's too many people doing this thinking they're going to make a profit."

When veteran musher Jeff King, 54, of Denali Park, Alaska, heard the race was in financial trouble, he and his family decided to step in and do what few athletes consider. He calls it "a token of thanks" to the Iditarod Trail Committee.

"I chose this year to pay back the $50,000 that was the first winner's check that I received from the Iditarod in 1993," King said matter-of-factly. The money was allocated directly to the musher's purse.

The Iditarod Trail Committee confirmed it is the largest cash contribution in the race's history from its winningest musher. King has collected a total of $765,520 from the Iditarod over his past 30 years in the race, and says the Iditarod has allowed him to make a living doing exactly what he loves.

However, he's quick to deflect any praise. "It's certainly not a race for money," he reminds anyone who asks. "We're all going broke doing it."

Self-described "city slicker" Hugh Neff, 42, who moved to Alaska in 1995 to "follow his dreams," said a "pot of gold in Nome" is not why he enters the race, despite his hopes to win.

"I moved up from Chicago with 200 bucks to my name and was sleeping under some bushes outside of Anchorage, you know, so I'm not one who worries too much about money," Neff laughed. "I told a person recently that I'd do this race for a dollar."

Video: Iditarod champ donates prize
  • Alaska
  • Sledding Sports

In 2009, Neff donated his second-place purse to another financially struggling dog sled race, the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. "I gave all the prize money away just to show people ... it's about the dogs, the land, the journey. It ain't about money," Neff said.

Other mushers seem more troubled by the financial state of the sport.

Hans Gatt, 51, a professional musher who grew up on a farm in Austria, won $30,000 for first place in this year's Yukon Quest, which ended in his current hometown of Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory.

Gatt commends King's donation but admits concern for the future of the race. "That's great, you know, but that's not the way it should go," he said. "If we have to come up with our own purse, then that's pretty bad. I hope they can change that in the future, again, like the way it was before and get more funding for the race."

This year's total prize purse for the Iditarod is $590,000, which is significantly less than the $925,000 given to finishers two years ago. This year's winner will receive $50,000, compared with the $69,000 prize claimed by 2009 champion Lance Mackey.

The race Web site at on Tuesday listed Paul Gebhardt, 53, of Kasilof, Alaska, with a narrow lead after completing about one-fourth of the trail.

Almost every musher in the race seeks sponsorships and additional donations to fund the Iditarod run.

Sebastian Schnuelle, 39, of Whitehorse said he never counts on prize money.

"I always try to have the money saved up, up-front, so I don't have to run the dogs to make money," he said. "If I have the money in the bank, I can finance it. ... But I don't want to have to push the dogs to make a paycheck."

Schnuelle, who was last year's Iditarod runner-up and was back among the leaders Monday, said he'll be taking a break from dog sled racing and will not compete next year.

Fans were surprised also to hear this year's $50,000 donor declare it will likely be his last Iditarod race in a sled after 31 consecutive years of competition.

King said he recognizes the irony of being a contender in his last Iditarod with a chance to win some of his own money. "It would be kind of fun to win back the very money I gave, but I think it's a pretty good demonstration that it's not the reason we're here. ... As nice as it is to have the purse, it's the trophy that I will remember longer than the purse."