Friday, March 2, 2012

A little more comparisonizing

I'm a little peeved with Iditarod Insider right now.  They shortened my last year's subscription to six months (i.e. they basically canceled it) and appear to have moved my renewal dates around.  Other people have been noticing similar issues and complaining, and the Insider Staff have been unresponsive.  And that reminded me that there's an issue here around business models, and differences in business models between the two major races.

My life is organized around dogs and technology (not always in that order, sad to say), and I've come to recognize that business models matter a lot in technical contexts.  A company with a very centralized revenue model is going make different architectural (and other) decisions from one with a distributed model.

The Iditarod is a massive, highly commercial undertaking, with many sponsors, occasional broadcast contracts, an apparently well-compensated professional staff, and the race roster to show for it.  It's very well-known outside the mushing community and has become a major tourism event for Alaska.  A few years back they decided to try to recover some of the costs of providing online access to the public by charging for it.  They use a very high-end (that is to say, expensive) GPS tracking service, professional media production, and for a few years were even putting up a helicopter with a Steadicam hung off the bottom.  Eventually they jacked up the cost to subscribers by splitting the GPS tracking system and video access subscriptions, and they quietly dropped the helicopter and Steadicam (and if you haven't seen the video of Jessie Royer on the coast with her lead dog Kuling powering into a strong headwind like it was nothing, you might not recognize what a loss that was).  They also appear to be locked into a sponsorship contract with GCI despite every single year GCI's website being unable to support the video traffic load during the starts (it's almost as if they're surprised that everybody who paid to watch is, you know, watching).  Basically, they've locked themselves into

  1. a very high-cost approach to running a race, 
  2. high-cost technologies, and 
  3. cost recovery by charging fans for access.  

The Quest doesn't have that kind of budget, and generally takes a more typically Alaskan improvisational approach, getting by with creativity, elbow grease, and a lot of metaphorical duct tape.  Their media team did an incredible job this year with stuff like lots and lots of low-cost GoPro Hero cameras, and their GPS tracking system uses less-reliable commodity (i.e. cheap) Spot trackers and excellent but buggy  They rely on a few high-end sponsors, lots of fan donations, and low-cost (~$500) business sponsorships.  It's a scramble to cover costs every year, but every year they get it done thanks to a core of fanatical fans and a creative, flexible professional staff and board.  And because they don't rely on expensive services that they have to sell to be able to continue to provide, they're continuing to build fan loyalty.  And in the meantime, technology will continue to improve because that's what technology does, and the Spots will become more reliable and the Trackleaders software will get its bugs worked out.

The Quest has had a tough row to hoe financially but they're holding it together.  I believe that over time, the Iditarod is going to have increasing problems covering the costs of the high-end services they employ, and that the Quest's costs will probably continue to burble along at the lower end (granted that fuel costs are a huge issue for the race).  In the meantime Quest vendors (media and tracking service) are going to continue to squeeze more and more out of the lower-end tracking service and video/photography/audio, while there's really just not that much room for the Iditarod to grow the quality of what they provide.  That is to say, that over time the Quest's production costs for fan access are probably going to stay low and the cost to fans will likely stay free, and the Iditarod's production costs for fan access are going to stay high and will need to be covered by subscription fees, but the quality of services seems to me to be very likely to converge.


  1. This addresses a few of the many reasons I've been a fan of the YQ since I became aware of the amazing sport of ultra-distance sled dog driving.

  2. I posted on this earlier on the Quest site. I'm just a fan, have followed both races since I could access them on the computer. The Iditarod is supposed to be about the mushers, the dogs, keeping in touch with village life. The first year they put the Insider in , it was a mess. They put the ITC in debt of more than 650,000 dollars with a system that had NEVER been tested. They flat out didn't know what they were doing,they couldn't afford the helicopter work anymore, let reporters like Jon Little go. The videos are poorly produced, Greg just doesn't have---though he thinks he's at the top.They are geared to the top finishers and that's who they follow. This last year's DVD only showed John Baker's finish and celebration and not one frame of anyone else coming in. The Iditarod is losing sponsors, the office of ITC is overpaid, they don't listen to fans or even to things that fans bring up. They jumped right in to being a tiny fish in a huge pond but thinking they are the biggest fish ever. I renewed my membership and Insider at the last minute this year, but only so I can watch Karen Ramstead and her North Wapiti team, Lance Mackey Hank DeBruin and his siberians. Why he came back, after his treatment the last time shows a man that is dedicated to his dogs and what they love to do.
    The Quest deals with mushers, dogteams, communities, volunteers and fans with respect and the knowledge that they need all of those factions----even the Red Lantern team. There's know way the Iditarod would allow those at the end to do what Michael [from Russia] and his 9 dogs were allowed to do. Iditarod wouldn't have covered the back of the pack either. The Quest lets all know that they need them and care about them. The ITC is strictly Big Business and the little guy doesn't matter. When the mushers and teams that I follow no longer do the Iditarod, I won't follow it, but I will always follow and support the Quest.