Doubts dog Beargrease leadershipConsistent snow at the end of January would be nice, say supporters of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. But what the race really needs is a better business plan and a change of leadership, some sponsors and former board members say.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
Consistent snow at the end of January would be nice, say supporters of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. But what the race really needs is a better business plan and a change of leadership, some sponsors and former board members say.
Race officials announced Thursday that the 30th running of the 400-mile sled dog race along Lake Superior’s North Shore would be canceled in 2014 for a lack of money. The race was canceled in 2012 for lack of snow and was postponed from January to March this year so the race would have sufficient snow.
But weather isn’t the most serious problem facing the popular event, said Bill Olson of Stewart Taylor Printing, a longtime race sponsor.
“It needs new energy, new life, a fresh start,” Olson said.
“I think any time you have failure, you have to look at the leadership. I’m just being honest.”
Olson wasn’t the only one who suggested a change in leadership.
“I think they need a strong, business-minded person to run the whole organization,” said Louise Russell of Dogbooties.com, a Duluth business and longtime race and musher sponsor. “A lot of people have their heart and soul into it, but it’s a business, and it needs to be run that way to be successful.”
Currently, Pat Olson serves as race director, a volunteer position. The Beargrease had a paid race director years ago, but in recent years the organization has been run entirely by volunteers.
Race director Olson said she has heard the call for new leadership.
“I’ve been on the board for a long time,” she said. “I would not one bit oppose stepping down and letting new blood come in, but the trouble is, we can’t find anybody. It’s a tremendous undertaking. We’ve been trying to get somebody else to step up to the plate, but nobody has.”
Geoff Vukelich, former president and now vice president of the Beargrease, said running a complicated long-distance race with a volunteer staff is difficult.
“The trouble we have is people get burned out,” Vukelich said. “That’s the biggest thing. Everyone has their life on top of this (race) that they don’t get paid for. When your kid’s sick, where do your values lie?”
Yet Pat Olson said she doesn’t think the Beargrease race director should be a paid position.
“The Beargrease went through that,” she said. “If you’re paid, then your focus changes. Are they doing it just for the position or because they have a passion for the event?”
The Beargrease was once a premier North American sled dog race. In the 1980s, it drew some of the sport’s leading mushers from Alaska, who ran heated races through cold nights against top regional mushers. But in recent years, with smaller purses, unreliable snowfall and dwindling sponsors, the race has struggled.
Putting on the race would require a minimum of $35,000 to $40,000, race director Olson said, plus purse money.
“I’d love to see us offer a $50,000 purse,” she said.
Last year’s total race purse was $15,000, Vukelich said, split between the marathon and the shorter mid-distance race.
Duluth’s Miller Hill Subaru no longer provides the $15,000 cash sponsorship for the race that it once did, although it has continued to provide several cars for race veterinarians to drive, Pat Olson said. Black Bear Casino provided $15,000 in cash for the 2013 race but hadn’t yet committed for 2014, she said.
Terry Mattson, the outgoing president and CEO of Visit Duluth, said he knows how hard it is to conduct major events, especially those that depend on the weather.
“It’s getting harder and harder with the economy,” Mattson said. “It takes incredible skills, passion and championing. You’ve got to have people behind it with fire and passion, and a lot of them.”
Jamie Nelson of Togo, a musher who has won the Beargrease four times and competed in the marathon 16 times, said the race organization needs retooling.
“I think they’ve burned a lot of bridges,” Nelson said, who served as a musher representative to the board in recent years. “I ran (the race) in 2010 and 2011 and hadn’t run it for 12 years before that. It seemed like the powers to be were a good-old-boys’ club that didn’t want to take ideas from people who really, really cared.”
“There’s a need for a business plan and for the race to conduct itself as a business,” said Duluth’s Linda Nervick, a marketing and public relations consultant who worked with the Beargrease from 2002 to 2011. “That’s what’s missing. It’s not the weather.”
Despite the challenges facing the race, many believe it again can be successful.
“I think it could be something viable,” Bill Olson said.
He alluded to the sponsorship of Vaseline hand cream and Seagram’s distilling from past years.
“Those big-time sponsors are not being courted,” he said.
Visit Duluth’s Mattson said he believes the Beargrease will make a comeback.
“I wouldn’t stick a fork in it yet,” Mattson said. “It sounds like there’s that passion to see it continue… but you have to have some dollars left over to pay a staff and a professional staff. The days of cobbling an event together with strictly volunteers are over. Who has the time and energy to do that, even with the passion?”
Beargrease mushers like Blake and Jen Freking of Finland would love to see the race succeed.
“It’s a big hit to the mushing community,” Blake Freking said. “I remember being a fairly young kid, watching that race unfold. It was inspiring to me. For us, personally, the Beargrease marathon is a big reason we live in Minnesota, not Alaska or Montana.”
Race director Olson is less optimistic about the future of the race, primarily because of Minnesota’s changing winter weather.
“If we could be guaranteed enough snow in the last week of January, then I’d have a more positive outlook,” she said. “Who’s to say we’d not have snow at the end of January? That used to be the case. It’s not so much anymore.”
In the meantime, Beargrease officials will focus on fundraising, Pat Olson said, and then decide whether to continue the race in 2015.