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Axemen look for more local owners

BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Axemen majority owner Chris Kokalis said Monday he intends to sell all or part of his stake in the minor league football team.

"I really want to find local folks to take this team to the next level," he said. "That's been the goal from the beginning. I don't think I hid that, even when we announced the team (being formed)."

Curtis Webb, executive director of the Sanford Center, where the team plays its home games and has its offices, said Kokalis wanted to sell to a local because it was more practical than running the Axemen from Iowa, where Kokalis owns the Cedar Rapids Titans, another Indoor Football League team.

"I think he's looking to have some more local ownership here on a day-to-day basis because he's down in Iowa most of the year, and I think he's found out it's pretty difficult to run two franchises in two different locations," he said. "I think he's looking for somebody... to be more of a 50/50 partner. That could be Ross (Ladehoff), who's the current minority owner, or that could be somebody else."

Kokalis said he is in talks with multiple parties interested in buying his stake in the team, but did not identify them. When asked whether he was selling his entire ownership of the team or just a portion, he said he was "open to all avenues at this time." He declined to say if Ladehoff is one of the interested parties.

The news Kokalis plans to sell comes amid difficulties in the team paying its bills to the Sanford Center. During the Sanford Center Advisory Board meeting June 23, the board discussed the team's outstanding debt of more than $12,000.

Kokalis said the team took on debt when the Axemen administration discovered the Sanford Center's season ticket facility fee was a lump-sum fee to be paid at the end of the season rather than incrementally after every game.

"Evidently, it's the same way that they do it with BSU -- they bill at the end of the season," he said. "So now we know that, and we can account for that next season."

The team received the season-ticket invoice -- which is due on receipt -- in June, he said.

Webb asked the team to pay half of the debt, $6,000, by Monday. He was optimistic the team would pay.

"I think they're going to make good on it," he said. "Their hope was to get it all paid."

Kokalis said the team had "been in discussions" with Webb on Monday, and that Webb understands that the team has yet to collect money owed to them by sponsors.

"We've talked to him, he understands that we have sponsor payments that we're waiting on . . . and we'll get that taken care of," he said.

It's not odd for teams to have outstanding bills at the end of the season, Kokalis said. Kokalis said the team would resolve its debt issue before the sale to a new owner.

"Whoever does purchase the team will be left with a debt-free team," he said.

The June 23 meeting also dealt with low attendance numbers at the Sanford Center for late season games, compared to the buzz around the team at the start of the season in February.

"The final game was a low attendance game," the minutes said in regard to the June 7 game against the Titans. "Revenues are down significantly from the opening part of the season."

Summer weather and inopportune scheduling were to blame for the lack of attendance at recent games, Kokalis said.

"When you're stuck inside for six, seven months out of the year because it's minus 50 degrees outside... when you get warm weather... everybody wants to run outside," he said.

For example, one home game was scheduled the same day as fishing opener, he said.

"This being another reason why it would be great to have local owners: I didn't know, we weren't aware of, the impact the fishing opener would have on the community," he said.

Next season will likely include more home games in the winter and fewer during warmer months, he said.

Webb said the Sanford Center was working on a contract to host the team for a second year. Kokalis said the team also was hunting for new office space outside of the Sanford Center, but a specific timeline for moving has not been established.

Zach Kayser
Zach Kayser covers local government and city issues for the Pioneer. He previously worked for the Wadena Pioneer Journal, and is an alumni of the University of Minnesota, Morris. 
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