The small northern Minnesota city of Bemidji is known for statues of folklore icons Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, as well as its proximity to hundreds of fishing lakes. But professional indoor football?
Bemidji has landed an expansion franchise in the Indoor Football League (IFL), home to colorfully named teams including the Green Bay Blizzard, Nebraska Danger, and Wyoming Cavalry.
The name of the new team, the Bemidji Axemen, was announced Thursday morning. The team marks the first professional sports team for Bemidji, which will be the smallest city in the 10-team league.
“I definitely believe in the potential of this market,” Chris Kokalis, co-owner and president of the new team, said, adding that he was impressed with Bemidji and the city-owned Sanford Center arena, where the football team will play.
But can indoor football be an economic development tool for the city?
Kokalis said that he’s received an encouraging response from the Bemidji business community about potential sponsorships. Kokalis said that there are 60,000 people within a 60-mile radius of Bemidji and that he’s hoping that the team can draw 3,700 to 4,000 fans per game.
“It’s bringing professional sports into markets that might not always have that,” he said. “The team has already sold a couple hundred season tickets.”
Kokalis, who is also a co-owner of the IFL’s Cedar Rapids Titans, declined to discuss typical annual revenue for an IFL team.
Ticket prices will average about $15. Season ticket packages start at $56 per year. The league’s 14-game schedule runs from February through June. The game is played on a 50-yard field.
“Any time you have a nationwide organization like the IFL select a city like Bemidji for expansion, I think that says a lot about the city and the region,” Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said.
Robert Loving, commissioner of the IFL, told Twin Cities Business that Bemidji is a good geographic fit for the league. Most of the IFL teams are based in the central United States, and travel is a major expense.
“Everything seemed just right there. We did our research and we came up with several sites,” Loving said. “We do look to continue expanding.”
The Bemidji Axemen team name was selected through a contest in partnership with the Bemidji Pioneer newspaper. The contest drew nearly 1,200 entries. Bemidji resident Diane Illies won season tickets for life by being the first person to submit the Axemen name, which was also proposed by 20 other entrants.