ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The U.S. recession has reached even Alaska's snowbound Iditarod Trail, taking a toll on competitors, organizers and sponsors of the world's most famous dog-sled race, which starts in Anchorage on Saturday.
The purse for the grueling 1,100-mile trek to Nome, which commemorates a lifesaving medicine relay in 1925, has been slashed to about $650,000, from $900,000 last year.
That is mostly because of the smaller field of racers, each of whom has to pay a $4,000 entry fee. Only 67 mushers and their dog teams are scheduled to start Alaska's most important sporting event, down from last year's record field of 96.
But sponsors are hurting too.
One longtime backer, outdoor gear retailer Cabela's Inc, slashed its support by almost two-thirds this year to $75,000. Its place as one of the four major sponsors was taken by oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp, which has weathered the recent financial turmoil better than most companies.
Another big sponsor, U.S. No. 4 bank Wells Fargo & Co, is holding firm, but as one of the financial institutions that received billion of dollars under the U.S. government's Troubled Asset Relief Program, it is under political pressure to cut non-essential spending.
General Communication Inc, an Anchorage-based telecommunications firm that uses its Iditarod sponsorship to showcase technology in remote Alaska locations, is maintaining its support for now but not planning any increases. "I will say things are very tight this year, more so than they have ever been," said company vice president David Morris.
Zack Steer, 35, a promising young competitor who will not be among those lining up with their dog teams at the downtown Anchorage start line on Saturday, said he and others made a financial calculation to sit out this year's race, and "spend some time at home and save some money" instead.
Time spent pursuing Iditarod dreams is costly, said Steer, who has finished as high as third. "It's a minimum of a $20,000 cash outlay. You can spend a lot more than that if you want," he said. "Your biggest cost is actually lost income."
The 36-year-old event, officially called the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, generally takes eight to 15 days to complete.
Steer, who owns and operates a tourist lodge near Palmer, Alaska, is expecting lean times even without Iditarod expenses. "We're bracing for a bad summer, just like a lot of other tourism-related businesses," he said.
The Iditarod Trail Committee, which manages the race, has sought new ways to pull in revenue. With sponsor Wells Fargo, it has set up a system where bank customers can make automatic donations to the race at any automated teller machine.
Direct merchandise sales, memberships, Internet subscriptions and other commercial activities account for about two-thirds of the $1.7 million it takes to put on the race each year, race spokesman Chas St. George said.
Some competitors have also used creative marketing to bolster financial support.
Aliy Zirkle, a former champion of the 1,000-mile (1,600-km) Yukon Quest and one of the top women in the Iditarod, has cultivated a range of sponsors. They include race fans who keep tabs year-round on her training and lifestyle in the remote hamlet of Two Rivers, Alaska, through her website (www.aliyzirkle.com/).
The recession is straining national sponsors, but some small Anchorage companies "are still stepping up," Zirkle said, including a local sports bar and shipping company.
As for Steer, he hopes to be back in 2010, "but maybe not if we have a disastrous summer."
(Editing by Eric Beech)