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Beargrease aims for financial stability plus schedule of events

Jan 28, 2018 06:41AM ● Published by Editor

Rita Weheseler (left) chases Dusty Klaven across Poplar Lake to the finish of the 2017 John Beargrease mid-distance race. News Tribune file photo.

By Jimmy Lovrien of the Duluth News Tribune on January 27, 2018 

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

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

In the years since, organizers have tried to have more sources of funding 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 (an) 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 past 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 also is 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.

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

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, 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 Freking 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 such as Alaska and Montana.

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

Schedule of events

• The John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon start is at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Alger Grade gravel pit north of Two Harbors. Spectators can meet the mushers beginning at 9 a.m. Sunday; a shuttle bus will run from the Lake County Fairgrounds to the gravel pit beginning at 8:30 a.m. Sunday. Spectators are asked to not bring any animals into the gravel pit area, including pet dogs. That rule is to protect both the sled dogs and pets.

• Mid-distance race finish is expected around 7 a.m. Monday at Trail Center Lodge on the Gunflint Trail.

• The marathon race finish is expected around 7 a.m. Wednesday at Billy's Bar in Rice Lake.

• Find more information at www.beargrease.com.

Beargrease coverage

• News Tribune reporters and photographers will be on the road starting Sunday, following the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon each day. Check www.duluthnewstribune.com for updates and look for coverage in the print edition.

• The News Tribune's online newsletter, DNT Today, will be sending out daily email roundups of our Beargrease coverage. Sign up for free at www.tinyurl.com/dnttoday.

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