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Bismarck Bucks Indoor Football League team sidelined by high workers’ compensation costs

The Bismarck Bucks will seek legislation allowing the Indoor Football League team to opt out of mandatory medical coverage through the state's monopoly workers' compensation program.

Bismarck Bucks logo.JPG
Bismarck Bucks of the Indoor Football League
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BISMARCK — An unlikely obstacle has forced North Dakota’s only Indoor Football League team to stay on the sidelines this year: high workers’ compensation costs.

The Bismarck Bucks team has decided to forego playing this season because it can’t afford the premiums for medical coverage through Workforce Safety & Insurance, which it is mandated to use.

Workforce Safety & Insurance is the state of North Dakota’s monopoly workers’ compensation program; all employers are required by law to cover their workers under the program, which provides health care and disability benefits.

“We are going dormant,” said Heidi Ripplinger, the Bismarck Bucks’ vice president for operations.

Workers’ compensation costs for the team, which has a roster of 25 players and a few coaches and other staff, exceed the payroll costs for the entire operation, said Derrick Bulawa, CEO of BEK Communications Cooperative, which owns the Bucks.

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As a result, the Bucks will not play during the Indoor Football League’s 2023 season, which will start in March.

The Bucks pleaded their case before the board of Workforce Safety & Insurance but were told that the state workers’ compensation program lacked the legal authority to grant the flexibility they sought.

Board members told team representatives that their solution would require going before the North Dakota Legislature to seek a law change, said Valerie Kingsley, WSI’s director of communications.

That’s exactly what the Bucks are doing, Bulawa said. Draft legislation is being prepared, and several legislators have expressed interest in sponsoring a bill, he said.

“I’m not taking a shot at WSI,” Bulawa said. “I'm just trying to point out the fact that one show doesn’t fit all.”

By Bulawa’s tally, 10 professional sports teams in North Dakota have failed or been forced to move, a clear sign, he said, that economic conditions are unfavorable.

“Clearly, there’s an economic problem,” and workers’ compensation costs are a part of that problem, he said.

The expensive medical coverage mandated through Workforce Safety & Insurance doesn’t work for contact professional sports teams, Bulawa said. Typically, an Indoor Football League team has an average of 3½ injuries per season requiring surgery, he said.

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North Dakota’s only other professional sports team, the RedHawks baseball team in Fargo, doesn’t have as many injuries, Bulawa said, so is not as adversely affected.

Other teams in the league get medical coverage under an agreement with local health providers, an arrangement that isn’t possible because of North Dakota’s state monopoly workers’ compensation system, Bulawa said.

“That’s really the struggle, not only for the Bucks, but all contact professional sports,” he said.

Typically, agreements include barter arrangements, with teams providing free tickets and promotional opportunities for the health provider, including displaying banners with the provider’s logo, Bulawa said.

“Therefore, the costs are very, very different,” he said. “That happens in every state but North Dakota.”

The Bucks, which started in 2017, are one of 14 teams in the Indoor Football League, a number expected to expand to 16 by 2024, when the Bucks hope to resume play, Ripplinger said.

During the team’s hiatus, the Bucks will explore the possibility of a new venue for playing its games. The Bismarck Events Center has been the team’s home, but other cities have expressed an interest in landing the team, Bulawa said.

“That doesn’t mean we’re going to exclude Bismarck,” he said. “We’re going to see what’s out there.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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