Commentary

Balsillie making another run at the Predators

Updated: October 12, 2007, 7:04 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Guess you don't become one of the most successful businessmen of your generation by taking no for an answer.

And so a kinder, gentler Jim Balsillie has reentered the Nashville Predators ownership picture.

After being called everything from a rogue to a cowboy in his first attempt to gain control of the Predators, the Canadian technology mega-millionaire on Friday presented a conciliatory memorandum to the city outlining a plan that would see the team remain in the city at least one more year. It also offers members of the current local ownership bid an opportunity to be involved in Balsillie's new ownership venture.

Jim Balsillie
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster,fileJim Balsillie is making a second attempt at buying the Nashville Predators.

The new proposal came up suddenly, within the last couple of days, a source close to the negotiations told ESPN.com. The terms of the new bid were outlined in a letter presented by Balsillie's new Nashville representative, Bo Roberts, to the city's Sports Authority, the group that controls the Predators' arena.

The new bid leaves more than a few questions unanswered. But, at least on the surface, the document suggests what might be the best-case scenario for all involved in what has become an uncertain process.

The new tack will be of interest to local politicians, taxpayers and the local ownership group whose $193 million offer is in danger of collapse. The group, led by local businessman David Freeman, has said unless the current arena lease with the city is reworked, including changes that would see more tax money funneled to the team, the offer would not go through.

Balsillie's proposal promises that no changes would be required to the lease at the Sommet Center "unless they benefit the [Sports] Authority and the residents of Nashville," the letter stated.

The local group has exclusive negotiating rights with the team's original owner, Craig Leipold, until Oct. 31 and Freeman sounded like a man who was not enticed by the Balsillie proposal given the tone of a statement released late Friday, even misspelling his name.

"I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on Jim Basillie [sic] or any of his activities, statements or certainly his obvious intentions," Freeman wrote.

"The Predators belong to Nashville. Quite frankly, I'm tired of our community's resolve to retain the Predators on a permanent basis being questioned by outsiders that neither contribute to our community nor care about our community," Freeman added. "In effect, they question the character and commitment of our city and our people. This is our home. This is 'Our Team.'"

Freeman said he believes the team will have a deal with the city by the deadline.

"In the meantime, to paraphrase one of my favorite fans, 'Keep your damn hands off our hockey team!'" Freeman said in ending his statement.

The Balsillie document offers members of that group an opportunity to maintain a stake in the team.

"Jim has assured me that he would welcome, but not require, local partners as a part of the ownership team," Roberts is quoted as saying in the document. "Specifically, he would welcome the participation of the local investors in the Freeman Group, [which] have so diligently worked to keep the Predators in Nashville."

There's even a nod to Balsillie's aggressive attempts to both purchase the Predators and pave the way for the team to move to Hamilton, Ontario, a strategy that earned him enmity throughout the hockey world, especially in Nashville.

"After having had extensive discussions with him, I am completely convinced that Mr. Balsillie's understanding of the Nashville market at that time was incorrect, and that Mr. Balsillie recognizes that," Roberts writes in the letter. "He is now committed to Nashville as a viable hockey market, one in which he strongly desires to own a franchise; and that he will commit the resources that are necessary to lead to a Stanley Cup for the Predators and Nashville.

"He is also keenly aware of the recent outpouring of support of the Predators by the community, and our concrete expressions that hockey and the Predators are important to Nashville."

Balsillie's proposal would see the team payroll to rise to at least the mid-point of the salary cap ceiling, currently at $50.1 million.

"This would be at least an $8 million investment over and above the required floor," the memorandum says.

This conciliatory tone might have stood Balsillie in better stead than his first go-round with the Predators. Whether such a tone will see Balsillie realize a long-held dream to own an NHL franchise is unknown.

One thing remains clear: No matter who ends up owning the team and no matter how much folks talk of the Predators' future, that future remains uncertain at best and bleak at worst.

In spite of an emotional campaign this summer to drum up support for the team, the Preds have yet to sell out any of their three home dates this season, including their home opener.

The Predators do not release paid attendance figures, but they must report paid attendance figures to the Sports Authority within 48 hours of every home game. The Tennessean's hockey writer, John Glennon, reported the Preds' paid attendance for their first two games averaged 13,724. Their announced attendance for Thursday evening's loss to lowly Phoenix was 12,155, which means paid attendance was likely between 10,000 and 11,000.

There is an escape clause in the current lease with the city that allows ownership to pull the plug if average paid attendance drops below 14,000 for two full seasons in a row. Leipold exercised that escape clause this summer, but there was some dispute about when the team could actually leave town.

In short, if the Preds average less than 14,000 paid attendance this season -- as early returns suggest will be the case -- it appears Balsillie would have to wait to introduce the escape clause until after the current season and the team would not be able to move the team until after the 2008-09 season at the earliest.

Balsillie's group would not confirm this was the case or answer questions regarding their new bid to buy the team.

"The memorandum speaks for itself and, out of respect for the process, no further comment," Balsillie's attorney and spokesman Richard Rodier said late Friday.

If it's a given that the possibility of the team leaving town remains a very real one, the new Balsillie initiative provides for a significantly sweeter deal for the City of Nashville and its residents. Instead of paying the current exit fee of $16 million, Balsillie has promised to pay as much as $75 million to the city and no less than $25 million pending losses accrued.

So, where does that leave Balsillie in Nashville the second time around?

It will be interesting to see how the offer plays with William "Boots" Del Biaggio III, who is the lone out-of-town member of the Freeman ownership group. Del Biaggio, a venture capitalist from California, was formerly a minority owner of the San Jose Sharks and was at one point in the hunt, like Balsillie, for the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has long been linked to the Sprint Center in Kansas City and the belief has been that should the local bid fall apart or the team continue to hemorrhage money (the team has lost $70 million since its inception a decade ago), Del Biaggio would move in, buy out his partners and move the team to Kansas City.

And then, there's Leipold. Balsillie initially offered him $238 million for the Predators, a figure far exceeding market value; but, in the end, Leipold became enraged at how the Balsillie camp handled the situation. Would he agree to sell to Balsillie this time around? Does he even need to agree or could Freeman, et al, simply agree to accept Balsillie's offer as part of the current bid?

Leipold, rumored to be in line to move into an ownership position in Minnesota if he can escape the Predators, did not respond to an e-mail request for comment Friday.

And then, there's the league itself. Getting the locals on board only gets Balsillie back in the NHL door. Balsillie received unanimous approval early this year when he was attempting to buy the Penguins, but that deal went off the rails when the league imposed a series of last-minute conditions on his ownership. Balsillie alienated many in the hockey community, including other owners, as his purchase strategy for the Predators seemed to pave the way for a potential move to Hamilton after local officials sold 14,000 deposits for season tickets in two days.

One owner told ESPN.com that owning an NHL team is now an extremely attractive option for the very wealthy and Balsillie did everything humanly possible to alienate himself from the group of owners that will ultimately decide whether he joins that exclusive club.

Will his new, softer approach endear him enough that the board would approve his ownership?

Stay tuned.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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