Nashville Group Meets With NHL’s Bettman

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 26, 2005

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Predators owner Craig Leipold and the NHL are giving Nashville every chance to keep the hockey team in Music City. Now it’s up to the fans to respond.

Leipold and representatives of the local group bidding to buy the team met Wednesday with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in New York. The meeting was successful enough that they sent an e-mail with a statement to Herb Fritch, chief executive officer of HealthSpring Inc. in Nashville.

“The results of today’s meeting is that Nashville has the opportunity to move very quickly to retain the Predators and to do so under local ownership,” Fritch said in reading the statement.

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“While we have not yet signed a purchase agreement, our discussions were encouraging for Nashville if we can move quickly and decisively to ensure the team’s long-term financial stability.”

Fritch declined to detail what the group is offering for the team.

“Craig is trying to afford the local group every opportunity to put an offer in place,” said Gerry Helper, the Predators’ vice president of communications. “Beyond that, it’s not appropriate to comment further,” Helper said.

Fritch said he didn’t know if the meeting produced a letter of intent.

The group also includes 36 Venture Capital CEO David Freeman, who attended the meeting. They submitted their bid in early July, countering offers from Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and California businessman William “Boots” Del Biaggio for the team.

Leipold said he’s trying to sell the team after losing approximately $70 million since being awarded the expansion franchise in 1997.

The Nashville group has yet to detail its offer. Balsillie’s bid of $220 million has stalled since a letter of intent signed in May, and Del Biaggio offered $190 million. Del Biaggio has an agreement with the Sprint Center to own any NHL team that relocates to Kansas City.

“Obviously a local bid is a positive for both the league and the city of Nashville,” Balsillie’s lawyer Richard Rodier told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. “The commissioner is on record as being in favor of franchise stability in their current locations. And it’s perfectly understandable. However, if the local bid is not successful, we remain optimistic that our bid is better in every way than any of the other bids out there.”

The NHL didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment Wednesday.

But the would-be Nashville buyers, Leipold and the NHL will be watching and monitoring how Thursday’s daylong “Our Team” rally in Nashville fares. A separate local group is working to sell at least 3,000 season tickets, starting with the rally.

“Keeping the Predators in Nashville will continue to be a broad-based community effort, and we hope that (Thursday’s) rally will demonstrate the support for the club’s ongoing needs from both the fans and the business community,” Fritch said.

“Mr. Leipold and the NHL office have been very supportive in their efforts. We thank them for their willingness to allow the city of Nashville to demonstrate its desire to retain the Predators.”

The “Our Team” group is working to ensure the Predators’ lease remains in effect after the 2007-08 season no matter who winds up owning the team. The Predators averaged 13,815 in paid attendance this season after finishing third in the NHL with 110 points.

Leipold exercised a clause in June that would allow the team to end the arena lease if the Predators do not average a minimum of 14,000 in paid attendance. Freeman recently said the Predators would need to average 16,000 to break even.

Thursday’s rally starts at 6 a.m. and will feature a daylong radio show with the arena open to fans coming to survey potential seats. The event includes box lunches provided by six hotels, Predators Ryan Suter and Vern Fiddler showing off the team’s new uniform and an appearance by the state’s first lady, Andrea Conte.

Ron Samuels, president of Avenue Bank and chairman of the “Our Team” effort, said news of Wednesday’s meeting should help give fans something to rally around and result in a big turnout. They’ve enjoyed watching the ownership group make their pitch but can’t control who buys the team.

“We’d love to have local ownership. But we think people no matter who the owners are, once they come to Nashville, they’ll love being here and find out Nashville is hugely supportive,” he said.

Simple fan support hasn’t been the Predators’ biggest problem. The team needs to boost tickets bought by businesses. Leipold said that has been 35 percent of the team’s ticket base compared to 65 percent fans, which is nearly the opposite of other NHL teams.

A service of the Associated Press(AP)