Thursday, May 24, 2007

Balsillie’s back in the game.

When we last left Jim Balsillie he had walked away from the table, pulled his pile of cash and left Mario Lemieux as a very angry man.

Now, a few months later, the Ontario businessman has apparently concluded negotiations with Craig Leipold of the Nashville Predators and signed a letter of intent to purchase the Tennessee franchise for 220 million US dollars. Up significantly from the 175 million that he offered for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The National Post was first with the story today, with the details of Balsillie’s purchase and the suggestion that while he will operate the team in Nashville for the 2007-08 season, he has no firm commitment there after the next year. The process is presently in the letter of intent phase with a number of reviews still to be held by both the Predators, Balsillie and the NHL.

This will once again spur on those rumours of a potential NHL franchise moving to the Kitchener-Waterloo region, the city where Balsillie’s company Research in Motion is based and just far enough out of the Toronto Maple Leaf exclusion zone to make hockey fans outside of the Greater Toronto Area sit up and take notice.

The story seemingly came out of nowhere, while it was known that the Predators owners were looking to relieve themselves of their NHL commitment, the Balsillie name hadn’t even been whispered since those fateful days in Pittsburgh.

The development will prove to be an interesting turn of events for Gary Bettman, who has been championing his southern expansion project for years now. While he may wish to try and keep his footprint in the heart of Tennessee, buyers offering that kind of money, don’t come around every day for a product with as low a profile as hockey seems to have.
It's a topic that Stephen Brunt addressed in his column in the Globe and Mail that came out shortly after the news was delivered that Balsillie was in the loop once again.

If Balsillie is adamant about relocation and wants to take his team to the Kitchener-Waterloo area, it’s hard to see how Bettman would be able to stop him, short of a lengthy court battle. Beyond that, Balsillie by offering up as much as he has, is doing the NHL a favour by keeping the value of franchises artificially high, considering the television revenues, gate receipts and marketing opportunities that seem to be in decline below the 49th parallel.

Hockey fans in Canada will be curious to see what the next move is, the Preds are an up and coming team, not quite as bountiful as the Pens would have been, but they will serve as a pretty impressive consolation prize.

It will be worth waiting for Balsillie’s first comments on the purchase and an explanation of what his plans may be both short and long term. It’s a big investment he’s made, if the story holds true over the next few days. It’s hard to see how the NHL could deny him his team regardless of what he has planned for it over time.

It’s quite appropriate that the main hunter of NHL franchises would bag himself a predator, Balsillie has been quite dedicated to his quest and as any great hunter knows, most of the hunt is taken up by patience.

Something that Balsillie seems to be rather versed in.

Balsillie to buy NHL's Predators for US$220M: reports
Scott Stinson
National Post
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie has agreed to purchase the National Hockey League's Nashville Predators, according to multiple reports Wednesday night.

Mr. Balsillie, co-chief executive of Research In Motion, makers of the BlackBerry e-mail device, is to pay U.S. businessman Craig Leipold US$220-million for the franchise, Bloomberg News reported.

Nasvhille's NewsChannel 5 television station reported on its Web site last night that Mr. Leipold told Predators office staff "the team will remain in Nashville for at least the next season, but made no promise for the future."

Such statements will trigger speculation that Mr. Balsillie's bid for the Predators will ultimately see him attempt to move the team to Canada. He lives in Waterloo, where RIM is headquartered.

Mr. Balsillie struck a deal to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins in October, but it fell apart after the NHL tried to impose a series of 11th-hour conditions on the sale of the team.

The National Post reported in December that those conditions would have prevented the new owner from moving the Penguins for at least seven years.

Several news outlets reported last night that Mr. Leipold discussed the sale of his team with the NHL's board of governors Wednesday afternoon in New York, and that a league news conference to announced the new ownership is scheduled for Thursday.

The Tennessean newspaper said last night that the sale was at the "letter of intent" stage and was still subject to various levels of approval. In the case of the aborted Penguins transaction, more than two months elapsed before Mr. Balsillie's formal announcement of his intent to buy the team and when he walked away from the US$175-million deal.

In early October, Mr. Balsillie was giddy with delight at the prospect of owning a piece of Canadiana.

"I'm going to get my name on the [Stanley] Cup one way or the other," Mr. Balsillie told the Post.
"What Canadian boy wouldn't do it [buy an NHL team] if he could?"

While not as hot a ticket as the Penguins and their star leader Sidney Crosby, the Predators are a strong team with a bright future. It finished 51-23 with eight overtime losses this season, but was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round by the San Jose Sharks.

The Predators averaged home attendance this season of 15,260 a game, eighth-lowest in the 30-team league.

(With files from news services)

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