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Beargrease aims for financial stability

Rita Weheseler (left) chases Dusty Klaven across Poplar Lake to the finish of the 2017 John Beargrease mid-distance race. File / Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 2
One of Beargrease mid-distance racer Nick Turman's dogs shows its willingness to run while a teammate waits quietly in the starting chute in 2017. File / Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com2 / 2

On Sunday, Jan. 28, mushers and dogs will begin the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, an annual tradition and North Shore linchpin.

Just over four years ago, however, the future of the race was uncertain. As sponsors slipped and available funds dwindled, race organizers canceled the 2014 race in October 2013. Later that month, the race was back on with a new board of directors.

Organizers are trying to have more sources of money to ensure there is not a repeat of 2013.

"We don't have one gigantic $50,000 sponsor that if they go away, all of the sudden the sky is falling. We have one big sponsor at $20,000 that's absolutely critical part for us," Beargrease Board Vice President Jason Rice said.

According to Rice, sponsorship dollars are approaching $60,000 this year, but total contributions are close to $70,000 or $80,000.

"We can't depend entirely on sponsorships," Beargrease board member Jean Vincent said.

Over the last couple of years, the Beargrease has been averaging $60,000 in cash and in-kind sponsorships, $10,000 per year in fundraising events, $10,000 in merchandise sales and $3,000 in donations, gifts and memberships, according to Rice.

It takes a bare minimum of about $50,000 to operate the race, Rice said.

The organization is also facing an increase in competition for sponsors as many companies and organizations opt for supporting causes and charities instead of a dog sled race.

"We're not curing cancer; we're not saving lives," Rice said.

Donations play a smaller, but significant, part in annual fundraising, too.

Even if they're giving you 10 bucks — 10 bucks is 10 bucks," Vincent said.

But donors tend to be the same people year after year.

"Those people making donations haven't changed that much," Vincent said.

To bring new donors in, they've made an effort to host new, smaller fundraising events throughout the year, such as a beer and bacon tasting this fall.

"People coming to that weren't necessarily Beargrease supporters," Vincent said. "They're people wanting to do something cool."

Rice said that after the 2017 race was finished, the organization had about $9,000 leftover to get them through spring and summer, which are slow fundraising seasons for the winter race. Rice said the organization would prefer $15,000 or $20,000 leftover after the race.

"Fundraising through much of the fall was steady, but nothing outstanding," Rice said.

So the organization is being a bit more conservative with the race this year in hopes of having more leftover after it is over. This has led to a smaller purse — prize money — up for grabs by top finishers.

Purse amount

The 2018 purse is set at $28,000 split among the top finishers in marathon and mid-distance races as well as among the finisher pool. For comparison, that's up from $15,000 in 2013.

But Rice said that's $5,000 less than last year. It's a flexible budget item, he added.

"If things start to get lean, we can scale back," Rice said.

A common complaint among mushers when the race temporarily folded in 2013 was that the purse wasn't high enough — set at only $15,000 that year — and competitive out-of-state mushers were passing on the race.

"If you had a $50,000 purse, are you going to get more mushers? Yeah, absolutely you are, but when you're talking anywhere from, say, $15,000 to $30,000 in purse money, you're going to get people who mostly are doing it because they want to do it," Rice said.

That's what keeps Blake and Jennifer Freking, a married couple and owners of Manitou Crossing Kennels in Finland, competing each year.

"It's going to affect numbers because everything is a financial gain these days," Blake said. "We keep coming back to the Beargrease because we love it, not necessarily because of the purse."

He added that if there was a higher purse, the Beargrease could compete against some Alaskan races and bring in more mushers from states like Alaska and Montana.

"The higher the purse, the more teams your going to drag in from long distances," he said.

Trends in sled dog racing shift

Years ago, the full marathon would bring in nearly 30 teams and the mid-distance would often fill its capacity of 50 teams, Vincent said.

This year, there are 10 teams registered for the full marathon, just below the organizers' 12- to 16-team goal.

"The last three years, the numbers, especially for the mid-distance race, have been down a lot," Vincent said.

But this year, the mid-distance race has more than doubled to 35 registered teams, up from 16 last year.

"So those numbers are coming back," Vincent said.

Both Rice and Vincent said the cost it takes to keep a robust kennel is forcing some mushers to own fewer dogs and enter the mid-distance race instead. The mid-distance race requires a minimum of six dogs, while the full marathon requires at least 10 dogs. They can have a maximum of eight and 14 dogs racing, respectively.

Freking estimates kennels need at least 16 dogs to field a marathon team. Manitou Crossing Kennels has 60 dogs, enough for teams for both him and his wife and several puppy teams, he said.

"There are fewer people who are digging into that extreme financially," Rice said.

Freking isn't so sure that's the case. Instead, Freking believes mushers use shorter-distance races to get introduced to the sport.

"A lot of people use the mid-distance race as a stepping stone on their way to larger races," Freking said.

Unreliable weather

Instead of starting races in Duluth — sometimes starting in Canal Park or Duluth East High School — the Beargrease has been starting at a gravel pit near Two Harbors off Lake County Road 2, where organizers and mushers said there is more reliable snow conditions.

With unpredictable snow conditions, mushers and volunteers can be slow to sign up.

In 2012, the race was scrapped due to lack of snow. In 2013, it was delayed until March.

"You can't guarantee sponsors there is going to be a race if there is no snow," Vincent said.