Thursday, August 02, 2007

Nashville's Ownership Situation

The Nashville Predators expanded into the NHL in 1998. Craig Leipold had been the team's owner since day one. He hired a good hockey man in David Poile to be his GM and allowed Poile to slowly and methodically build a winning team in Nashville with little outside interference from ownership. The Nashville Predators have become a pretty good team finishing in fourth place in the NHL last season with 110 points. They have yet to have significant post season success, but looked like it would be only a matter of time before that followed. The problem was Leipold was losing money. He brought a good team to Nashville and not enough people in the city cared. Revenues were low. Attendance was low. Seeing Nashville as a poor hockey market, Leipold decided to sell.

Enter Jim Balsillie into the picture. The Canadian businessman had already made an offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins with the intent to move them to Southern Ontario. This was an offer he later withdrew when the NHL stood in the way of relocation. Pittsburgh is a solid hockey market that was having trouble getting a new arena deal and moving them would not address that issue. When Nashville became available, Balsillie made a $220 million offer to buy the Predators. Again he planned to bring the team to Southern Ontario. The NHL does not look too fondly upon team relocations because it deprives then of the expansion fees that would be paid by new owners of expansion teams in the relocated markets and because it is a blow to the mythology that the lockout was done in part to prevent franchise relocations. Publicly, the NHL frowned upon Balsillie's offer and led Nashville to look in other directions for a potential owner. It is speculated that their private opinion of Jim Balsillie might be more complex.

At any rate, with some uncertainty over ownership, the Predators acted to keep costs down in the upcoming season. They let Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell go to Philadelphia just before the free agency deadline, they traded Tomas Vokoun and allowed Paul Kariya to leave via free agency. The future Predators would not be as talented, but they would be cheaper - at least until new ownership was ready.

The next potential suitor was William "Boots" Del Biaggio. He is the frontman for the Anshutz group that is trying to bring the NHL to Kansas City where they have an arena ready waiting for tenants. He would still be acting to relocate the team and this is still against the NHL's wishes, but it is more agreeable to them because Kansas City is a market in the US heartland where the NHL is desperately trying to grow roots in pursuit of a new US TV deal - which would be a huge boost the NHL revenues were it not a pipedream. Another team in Southern Ontario doesn't help the total NHL revenues the same way. Sure they might be financially successful, but they won't increase the revenues of the other owners the way a potential US TV deal would. There was opposition to moving Nashville to Kansas City, but it was not as big as the opposition to a move to Southern Ontario.

The ideal scenario for the NHL is to keep the Predators in Nashville and fill Kansas City, Southern Ontario and anywhere else with expansion franchises. When local businessmen started to put together an offer to keep the Predators in Nashville this was seen as the best possible outcome.

The problem was there isn't enough interested local money. Del Biaggio got himself included in the group that offered $193 million to buy the Predators from Leipold. He imagines that the weakened Predator team will be unable to make necessary revenue levels and will be more easily moved to Kansas City when the local Nashville businessmen, who are his partners, get tired of losing money. I imagine this is the most likely scenario at this point. The city of Nashville did not support the Predators at a high enough level when they had a good team, and likely they will not have as good a team going into the new season. I think the Nashville Predators are a "dead franchise walking" that got a temporary reprieve from this offer. There is no guarantee that this sale will go through as planned and even if it does, they are not out of the woods. The Nashville fans will have to support the team at higher levels than ever before with less talent on the ice.

Here is the TSN story on the letter of intent to keep the Predators in Nashville.

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