ESCANABA - Delta County is finally receiving a legitimate sport capable of filling the entertainment void during the early summer months.
Come May 2013, the Escanaba Bandits semi-pro football team of the Northern Lights Football League (NLFL), will be filling the stands. That, is owner and head coach Paul Names' hope.
"We're looking at drawing huge from the local community. When this league started, teams were averaging 300-350 fans per game. We're expecting to draw 1,000 because we have no competition," Names said Monday afternoon. "We have a huge advantage here in Esky over every other team in the fact that we have no competition. Green Bay has five semi-pro teams. There's a lot to do in Green Bay. Here, there's practically nothing to do in May or June."
Early interest in the Bandits has been high. Names said 31 players have already signed up and most are showing up to practice on a regular basis.
The team is made up of plenty of former Escanaba Eskymos with some players with semi-pro or college experience sprinkled in.
The jersey's are orange and black, with home uniforms consisting of black jersey's and orange pants and road uniforms being the opposite. The helmets are black with the Bandits logo.
"We have quite a few players that have played at Escanaba, and of our three quarterbacks, one played at Lawrence College in Wisconsin. The other two played at Escanaba," said Names. "We have several players with at least one year of semi-pro experience. Our team captain, Josh Bellefeuille has been huge and instrumental in getting everything going. He's a true leader of the players."
The age range on the Bandits is 18-31 with most players falling between the 18-23 range. Players must be at least 18 years old, and if they are still in high school, they must fulfill their high school athletic obligations before they may play for the Bandits.
"I'm not going to interfere with their high school athletics," Names said. "I have four kids of my own and school and education always comes first."
The team pays for some expenses such as travel, jersey's and officiating, but players are responsible for their own equipment.
"The guys pay player fees and provide equipment. We're trying to get businesses to be player sponsors. Player sponsorships are available for $100," Names said. "We also currently have three team sponsors that have signed - Dagenais Enterprises, Radio Results Network and the Delta County Credit Union. My partner Mike Shubert handles all the marketing and sponsorships."
A player equipment fundraiser will be held at the Escanaba Country Club on Oct. 1 when the golf course holds a 9-hole four person scramble.
"All proceeds will go directly to the players equipment fund," said Names. "As an organization we don't take anything. We're just helping the players."
The NLFL currently has six teams. In addition to the Bandits, there are the Green Bay Blackjacks, Oneida Stampede, Titletown Muskies, Milwaukee Renegades and the Oshkosh Aviators. Names said the League may be accepting two additional teams for the 2013 season.
"The Northern Lights League has had two full seasons," he said.
"By Nov. 1, I will hear from the two other prospective teams to see if they'll join."
The League schedule will consist of eight games, four home and four away. The season will begin and May and end with the Aurora Borealis bowl tentatively slated for July 27. All games will be played Saturday afternoons.
The first time the Bandits take the field will tentatively be April 20 when they play the first of two non-league or preseason games.
"The non-league games don't count against your record. They're like preseason games. We're hoping to have three, but we'll have two for sure," Names said.
The team is working to secure the Escanaba Athletic Field as their home field, but Names said more work needs to be done to secure additional sponsorships before movement can be made on that front.
"One idea we've tossed around is to allow the Escanaba Fan Club to run concessions and take half of the profits," Names said.
Names went on to talk about the NLFL code of conduct and creating a family atmosphere.
"We have a league code of conduct. We want families to come, so we don't allow cheap shots or bad language. We have rules that say if you do a late hit, your team is warned. If it happens again, the player is ejected. We don't tolerate it. It's going to be clean football. And if you argue with the refs, you're thrown out immediately," Names said.
"With our team, we've taken it a step further. Profanity is not allowed on our team. Not in practices, not in games. Players are fined $1 every time they swear and that gets put into a bucket and at the end of the season, whatever money is in there will be donated to the Escanaba Free Lutheran Church. This was in the players' contract. They all know.
"Our defensive coordinator Mike Shubert said he's bringing $10 to every practice as he'll be contributing a lot."
The League has four owners. Paul Names, Mike Shubert, Paul's father Larry Names and Paul's brother Torry Names. Larry Names currently acts as the interim president and head coach of the Green Bay Blackjacks, however the league is in the process of hiring a new president.
"We want someone nonaffiliated with he league to be our president and we currently have three candidates," Paul Names said. "We'll have a vote and a decision made at our next league meeting in October."
Names also said he doesn't plan on holding his head coach position beyond this season.
"For the first year, I said I'd be the head coach. It's always difficult to find a head coach the first season, so I'll wear the hat," he said. "After this season, I can step away and show up to games as a fan. It's a lot of work running the team and being the head coach, especially with a 55 hour a week job, but it is what it is."
The Escanaba Bandits plan to have a website up and running in October.