Investors wanted: IFL, Sanford Center look for local money for expansion franchise
BEMIDJI -- Chris Kokalis thinks an Indoor Football League team in Bemidji can be a smash hit. When he got a glimpse of the Sanford Center, he was sold.
"This facility is amazing," Kokalis said, referring to the Sanford Center. "I think it's too beautiful not to have indoor football."
Now, all he and Sanford Center officials need are some investors to get a team off the ground.
Kokalis, the general manager and co-owner of the IFL's Cedar Rapids Titans and chairman of the league's expansion committee, spoke to a group of potential investors and community members in a press conference Thursday at the Sanford Center.
Sanford Center executive director Curtis Webb said a potential expansion franchise would be dependent on finding some investors, preferably local. Thursday's meeting was the first formal proposal to community members to gauge the interest of starting a team.
"No, we don't have anyone seriously interested yet," Webb said. "This was the first kickoff. We want to see what happens, see if the water's warm and test the market.
"We'd love to find someone local but we also wouldn't mind having someone from out of town if they're interested."
Webb and Kokalis said the cost for starting a team from scratch should be around $75,000 to $150,000.
Webb said VenuWorks, the company that operates the Sanford Center on behalf of the city of Bemidji, might be willing to contribute money for the playing turf and the padding that surrounds the hockey boards for football games depending on what an ownership group can do.
"In order for IFL program to happen we need to find local investors," Kokalis said. "Almost all are owned by local ownership groups. People who have some kind of stake in the community."
The league, currently in its sixth year, is similar to Arena Football League with one key difference: There are no nets around the field and rules are more similar to outdoor football than the AFL.
Teams have rosters of 21 players with the season running from February to June. Each team plays seven home games and seven road games and players are paid $225 per game with a $25 win bonus. Most players come from Division I and II programs and are looking to use the IFL as a stepping stone to the NFL or CFL.
"It would be a great fit here with the BSU football program right down the street," Kokalis said. "Maybe give those athletes an opportunity to give themselves a stepping stone to get themselves to a higher level. That's what this league is designed for."
Kokalis said the league is planning on expanding into small markets and Bemidji is exactly the profile the league is looking for.
"Our success in IFL has been in markets similar to Bemidji," Kokalis said. "Local communities can gravitate to these teams and take ownership of what that team stands for."
If Bemidji were to gain an IFL team, it would be the smallest market by far in a league that features teams in the Chicago and Dallas area as well as teams in small and midsize cities such as Sioux Falls, S.D., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Grand Island, Neb.
But that doesn't seem to daunt IFL officials, who think playing in a market like Bemidji can give them an edge.
"We do have teams in Dallas and Chicago metro areas but I believe that the key for success for our product is in markets like Bemidji, where you've got a loyal fanbase and you're not having to compete with major league teams," Kokakis said.
League officials also don't seem too concerned with drawing fans to the Sanford Center to watch indoor football.
"If you can get 3-4,000 people inside here for indoor football, you can be successful," Kokalis said.
Average attendance at IFL games is 3,610, according to a handout from league officials.
Webb was also optimistic about the prospects of the IFL in Bemidji.
"I think you can sell this out, I really do," he said.
Webb has experience with the league: The IFL brought the Colorado Ice to Loveland, Colo., when he was working at the Budweiser Events Center there.
"It's not 50 games a year, it's seven home games. That's the part of it that's best. it's not every day and it's not just a one-and-done.
"We want to make sure this building is as profitable as it can be," he added. "We're lucky because we have BSU (hockey) games. But the way our spring went this year, it would have been really nice to have those football games. For us, we're just looking for good quality events."