Nashville decision will say a lot about Bettman's legacy

Gary Bettman has painted himself into a tiny, uncomfortable corner. After demonizing potential owner and Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, the future of the Nashville Predators is up in the air.

Updated: July 13, 2007, 2:22 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

There is something of the tragic-comic hero in Gary Bettman and his manipulation of the sale -- or nonsale, as is currently the case -- of the Nashville Predators.

So determined is Bettman to prove that his vision of the NHL as a great American sporting presence is unassailable, so determined is he that his handiwork shall be his living monument to himself and the sport, that Bettman has painted himself into a tiny, uncomfortable corner.

How he emerges from this corner -- if at all -- will say much about his legacy and, indeed, the look and health of the NHL for years to come.

This is what Bettman had hoped would happen.

After demonizing potential owner and Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie as a cowboy and a renegade, and convincing current Nashville owner Craig Leipold to pull back from considering Balsillie as a potential buyer, Bettman was hoping the Preds would be quickly sold to venture capitalist William "Boots" Del Biaggio III. Assuming fans continue to stay away in Nashville as everyone assumes, Bettman would achieve his goal of seeing the team move to Kansas City, where the Anschutz family, NHL buddies and the owners of the L.A. Kings, already have a nice arena waiting.

Nice and tidy. Swap one middling, ill-conceived American market for another. Right?

Unfortunately for Bettman, that hasn't happened. And it may not. Sources close to the situation have told ESPN.com that Del Biaggio is hesitant to take on the myriad problems associated with moving the team out of Nashville, preferring instead to wait for an expansion team to fill the rink in Kansas City.

According to the sources, Del Biaggio's last reported bid of $198 million may be somewhat lower now given the possibility of expensive litigation to get the Predators out of Nashville even if the team fails to reach the 14,000 average paid attendance threshold, which will trigger an escape clause in the lease.

And so with Balsillie still waiting in the wings with an above-market offer for a team in a stillborn market, the situation has become increasingly uncomfortable for Bettman.

The commissioner can ram the sale of the team down the collective throats of Leipold and Del Biaggio -- which is what he's been trying to do since he learned Balsillie was on the verge of signing a letter of intent to buy the Predators in late April -- and force the Predators to move to Kansas City's Sprint Center.

Or Bettman can find a way to backtrack and do what's right for Leipold, the fans, the other owners and the game.

Unfortunately, backtracking isn't one of Bettman's strong suits.

Not that there aren't ways to do it.

For one, Bettman could emerge at the next NHL board of governors' meeting in the fall and simply say, "You know what, you're right, Jim. Hamilton looks like a great place for a team even with all the soot from the steel plants and those weird one-way streets. Your architectural drawings to retrofit old Copps Coliseum are cool, plus there's a Tim Horton's coffee shop on every corner. Write Craig that whopper check and then we'll talk about how much it'll cost to make the Toronto Maple Leafs be good neighbors, and the team is yours."

To appease Del Biaggio and the Anschutz folks, who have been shamelessly lobbying to relocate ailing NHL teams to the rink for months, Bettman could then announce that in five or six years, the NHL will expand to 32 teams. Television/movie mogul Jerry Bruckheimer's investment group would get its team in Las Vegas, provided it forks over $325 million or so in a special expansion fee, while Del Biaggio would get his expansion team in Kansas City for about $175 million, which would give the owners some $500 million to split up -- not a dime of which would have to be shared with the players.

Not long ago, Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group, told the Kansas City Star he expects the expansion scene to unfold exactly this way.

"I think there will be a new arena in Las Vegas, and there are several interested parties that want to buy the franchise in Vegas, and you can't expand by one, you've got to expand by two. So that means Seattle and Kansas City, I think, will vie for that other franchise in the NHL," Leiweke told the Star in late May.

"I believe Boots and his group will step up and get an expansion franchise if there is one to be had," he added.

Another variation on this theme could see Bettman insist the Predators -- again assuming continued disinterest from the corporate community in Nashville -- relocate to Kansas City, where the curve to respectability would be shorter than if it was an expansion team. Bettman could then tell Balsillie that, for the $238 million he was going to pay Leipold, he can have an expansion franchise in Hamilton, Ontario.

It would mean saddling Balsillie with a poorer product initially, but the market would almost certainly sustain the team until it improved. Having an expansion team in Canada would help offset the expected skepticism surrounding the idea of an expansion team in Las Vegas.

Either way, the owners get more money to spend foolishly against the salary cap. The players, who enthusiastically support a team in Hamilton and are believed to be in the process of publicly supporting a move there, would be happy because there are more jobs. Bettman gets to save face and the NHL would be healthier, at least until the Kansas City team comes up lame, which seems almost certain, but at this point it's a moot point.

Simple?

Unfortunately with Bettman, these things are rarely simple. Not when it comes to admitting a mistake -- and surely Nashville has been a colossal failure.

The longer the light shines on the attractiveness of a team in Hamilton, and the longer the Predators twist in the wind without another viable purchase bid in the offing, the more likely it becomes that Bettman's intransigence will lead to a nasty OK Corral-like showdown.

Members of the league's board of governors understand the chances of a franchise in Hamilton thriving are far greater than one in Kansas City. In casual conversations with ESPN.com over the past year, at least a half dozen board members have said they believe a new team in Ontario would be an instant hit and a huge revenue generator.

Phoenix Coyotes head coach and resident NHL icon Wayne Gretzky said as much recently when he told a Canadian Web site that he would have no concerns about the future of a team in Hamilton.

In a league in which at least half a dozen franchises are in trouble, stability is crucial to the NHL's future. Unlike many owners, Balsillie is beholden to no one. He is not part of a large, unwieldy conglomerate of investors. He is not leveraged to the hilt. He helped invent a technological device, the BlackBerry, that has made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. The fact that he wants to be the owner of an NHL team, regardless of the costs, is a nice juxtaposition to those NHL owners, past and present, who have declared bankruptcy, gone to jail or been forced to make repeated cash calls to keep their teams afloat.

Balsillie has already made an offer that will drive up relative franchise values, and sources tell ESPN.com he has agreed to forgo any revenue-sharing monies his team might be eligible for as a show of good faith (and a reflection of his financial commitment to the league).

If the NHL's board of governors were given a chance to vote, it's hard to imagine Balsillie wouldn't be overwhelmingly approved as the owner of the Nashville Predators, as he was when he prepared to take over the Pittsburgh Penguins.

If Bettman cannot see that, too, then at some point it will be up to the board of governors to find someone who will.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.