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Nenana Ice Classic ticket sales rebound after pandemic slump

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Nenana Ice Classic
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The ice on the Tanana River near Nenana is solid as of today, and shows no sign yet of breaking up and toppling the tripod -- establishing the winning date and time for this year's Ice Classic, which in turn will provide the basis for awarding the jackpot to those who guessed it correctly.

Ice Classic manager says comedian John Oliver's spoof report on event had 'huge impact' on boosting sales

After two slow years, ticket sales for this year’s Nenana Ice Classic have rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. Manager Cherrie Forness says event organizers are still tallying sales, which ended April 5th. And she says the event got a big boost last month from comedian John Oliver, who produced a hilarious spoof of the annual ice-breakup guessing game for his weekly program on HBO.

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HBO/Facebook screenshot
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Comedian John Oliver spoofed the Ice Classic in a rollicking report during his March 27 episode of "Last Week Tonight With John Oliver."

Forness says ticket sales for this year’s Ice Classic won’t be quite as brisk as they were three years ago, when the jackpot was more than $311,000 dollars. But she expects they’ll be higher than last year’s ho-hum performance, which yielded a prize of $233,000.

“It was slow, but it wasn’t as slow as the prior year, in 2020,” Forness said in an interview Wednesday.

That year’s jackpot was a paltry $125,000, which she reckons was mainly caused by economic uncertainty resulting from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The size of the prize is determined by the number of tickets sold. The earnings are divvied up between the jackpot, the city library and senior center and nonprofit organizations like the American Cancer Society, Boy Scouts of America and KUAC.

Forness says she can’t say how big this year’s jackpot will be, because they’re still counting. But, she added, “It’s looking pretty good so far. We still haven’t received everything. It takes a while for stuff to come through the mail.”

Forness says a lot of that mail came from people all around the country, and abroad, who told her they were motivated to buy tickets after seeing a satirical report on the Ice Classic during the March 27 episode of comedian John Oliver’s show on HBO. She says that gave sales a big bounce.

“Yeah, it certainly did,”[i] she said. “It was a huge impact. Our email went crazy, and we were talking with people from all over the place. Almost every time I answered the phone for the first two or three days after the show, it was someone who had seen it.”

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Kris Capps/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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Ice Classic Director Cherrie Forness, left, and her successor, Megan Baker.

It’ll take at least a few more weeks for the Ice Classic staff to tabulate everything and pay expenses before it announces the jackpot winner. And, of course, the tripod is still standing on the ice over the Tanana River near Nenana. And Forness says it’s still looking pretty solid.

“We’re not seeing a lot of melt yet,” she said. “Our weather’s been pretty cold. Like, a week ago, we were waking up to still 8 below in the morning.”

But the weather has warmed over the past couple of days, which will help hasten the breakup. And after the tripod topples and the earnings are distributed, Forness, -- like the ice on the Tanana -- will be moving on. After heading up the event for 26 years, she’s decided to retire.

“I think it’s time for them to have new blood,”she said, “and the gal that we’ve hired and I’ve been training all year -- I think she’s going to be great.”

That’s Megan Baker, who served this year as assistant manager, who’ll be heading up the 2023 Ice Classic -- the 118th year of what John Oliver calls “the single-greatest ice-melting contest in the world.”