Ski to Sea may be pricing some teams out of Whatcom County’s signature adventure relay race on Memorial Day weekend — and some worry that the price could go higher in the future.
Just seven years ago, the least expensive entry fee for a Ski to Sea team cost $299, or $37.38 for each of the eight team members. This year, the cost for that same team — a non-corporate division using early-bird registration — to enter the race has swelled to $499, or $62.38 per racer.
Entry fees on every other level for the seven-leg race have seen similar increases. On the high end, corporate division late-entry fees have climbed from $419 per team in 2009 to $699 in 2016.
Competitors have questioned this 67 percent increase.
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“We’ve definitely heard from racers about the rising costs of entry fees,” first-year Executive Director Mike Trowbridge said. “The reality is that in order to cover all the production costs for the race, entry fees needed to increase.”
In 2010, the race was purchased from the Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce by Whatcom Events, a nonprofit organization set up by former race director Pete Coy and members of the race board. Though the race is now entering its seventh year of being privately run, Trowbridge insists nobody is getting rich off Ski to Sea. One of his goals when taking the race’s reins was to make it more transparent to the community
“I volunteer — I’m not paid for any of this,” said Trowbridge, who served as vice president of Whatcom Events last year. “It’s a full-time job I don’t get paid for. I’ve got some phenomenal volunteers — the leg chairs and transition chairs and safety people.”
The organization’s 2014 Form 990 tax return shows that Whatcom Events, which also operates the Tour de Whatcom bicycle ride and Muds to Suds fun run, spent less than $70,000 on wages and salary. It has only one full-time employee and a part-time employee.
The bulk of manpower behind Whatcom Events is volunteer, with a couple of unpaid interns at different points throughout the year.
There is this reputation that Whatcom Events is getting rich off running Ski to Sea. I don’t know where that came from — I wish knew.
Whatcom Events president Bryan Geschwill
In 2014, Whatcom Events reported total revenue at $422,053. Its expenses of $442,750 meant the organization lost $20,697 for the three races combined that year.
“We have overcome this challenge by lean spending and better control of our spending,” Trowbridge said about the loss in 2014.
Why have entry fees continued to rise?
There are many reasons.
When Whatcom Events purchased Ski to Sea in 2010, Trowbridge said, some race-day costs went up because “the perception that the race is for profit has led organizations to pass their full costs on to the race.”
The race also has seen an increase in costs from other entities, such as law enforcement, that now must be paid by Whatcom Events. In 2014, Whatcom Events reported paying $19,909 for traffic control and law enforcement and another $14,408 in park rental fees.
Perhaps the biggest increase, though, was the cost of insuring the race. Trowbridge said the race “had previously been significantly under insured,” and the cost to properly cover the race led to a 700-percent increase. Whatcom Events reported $24,878 in insurance costs in 2014.
“Additionally, since our goal is to sustain the race into the future,” Trowbridge said, “we have taken on major projects, such as having a custom registration system built and making investments in the improvement of timing and results.”
Ski to Sea’s unique format, with seven legs staged across half of Whatcom County with seven very different transition zones, created a challenge for electronic timing. Race Day Timing Solutions has found a way to make it work, but Whatcom Events reported paying $18,500 for timing in 2014.
We break everything down and figure out what we need to charge and keep very little profit in there. We keep it as skinny as possible.
Whatcom Events president Bryan Geschwill
Registration has been equally difficult, considering most online registration companies aren’t set up to handle registration for eight-person teams competing in seven legs. The answer for Whatcom Events, Trowbridge said,was to build its own registration system by “hiring a couple of tech guys that worked on the timing to build a us system. We put a lot of money into that last year.”
Where will entry fees go in the future?
That, Trowbridge says, is a difficult question.
“We try to mitigate the effects of increasing costs in one area as much as possible by reducing costs in another area,” he said. “We hope that we have reached a stable race entry fee level for the foreseeable future.”
But increased costs to run the race may make that difficult.
“We are hearing that our costs for law enforcement from the city of Bellingham, which we pay half of the cost currently, will be going to full cost in the future,” Trowbridge said. “Additionally, we are hearing that other services, such as city of Bellingham Public Works, will be charging us for things like putting out street closure signs. All of these things add up to a significant amount that is, by necessity, passed on to the racer.”
Whatcom Events, Trowbridge said, hopes to offset those potential increases by finding additional race sponsors, but he admits he doesn’t want to have too many sponsors to water down the impact the businesses get from associating themselves with Ski to Sea.
“Our goal with the nonprofit organization is to promote recreation in Whatcom County and to continue the tradition of the Ski to Sea Race long after we’re gone,” Trowbridge said. “We don’t see ourselves as having ownership of the race and feel that we’re the temporary stewards in something that is much larger than any individual or organization.”