Friday, June 15, 2007

Jim Balsillie’s march to Hamilton, will it be Gary Bettman’s Waterloo?

The Commissioner’s uncomfortable look at the televised NHL Awards last night, gave away the body language of a guy in a corner. Gary Bettman looked a tad rigid in his chair after that Ron McLean joke about relocating the last half of the show to Kitchener-Waterloo, a jibe that probably tells us a lot about the state of affairs between the Commissioner and the billionaire would be hockey owner Jim Balsillie.

The bid to purchase the Nashville Predators, like the attempted purchase of the Pittsburgh Penguins before it, is starting to spin away from the commissioners grasp and he can’t like the feeling of déjà vu. Balsillie even upped the stakes in the game of poker with the NHL owners, offering the Nashville owner Craig Leipold, 240 million for his hockey team, an amount that seems out of whack even to the unseasoned eye of a non accountant.

240 million for a team in a leauge, which a fair number of years since a southern expansion still, has a negligible footprint in the USA outside of traditional markets. 240 million for a team in a league with a TV contract that allows playoff games to be punted before completion lest the majestic sight of a horse and jockey rubbing noses may be missed. 240 million dollars for a team in a league where some franchises are offering two for one deals on tickets and still don’t particularly draw well.

If you’re Craig Leipold, Balsillies' arrival is like a lottery win, after years going into debt and trying to make a go of it in Nashville, he has been offered a parachute of gold out of his financial doldrums, just let the rest of the NHL try to stop the sale and watch the fireworks.

More to the point though is why would they try to stop him from spending such money, Balsillie with his huge purchase price instantly increases the face value of every single franchise in the 30 team loop. An artificial number that doesn’t really seem to be a true reflection of worth, but when you consider that there are at least three or four Nashvilles in the league at the moment, dollars are dancing...

The problem for the NHL is of course, Mr. Balsillie appears to not want to call the land of the Opry Home, but instead would seem to prefer the working mans foundry of Hamilton for his 240 million dollar investment.

Not a problem for the majority of the owners we suspect, but a concern for Toronto and Buffalo. The Sabres are probably worried for their ticket base, as perhaps half of their season tickets are owned by residents of the golden horseshoe area of Ontario, put a team in Hamilton and the traffic flow on game night might be North instead of Southeast in a year or so.

For the Leafs it’s just the nerve of someone thinking of poaching into their long held territory, a fiefdom which they protect with much zeal. Never mind the fact that the only way to get a Leafs season ticket is for Grampa to die off and leave them in the will, the Leafs have enjoyed uninterrupted attention in Southern Ontario far beyond when young Jim Balsillie probably first saw his first blackberry patch and went aha. To share such lucrative turf with an interloper and a pushy one at that, probably has the office dwellers of the Air Canada Centre looking at nuclear weapons as a way to stem the invasion.

Television of course is what’s at stake, adding a team in Hamilton will cut into that cash cow of the digital world and its non stop attention given to the mighty Blue and White. From Sportsnet through TSN and to the Leafs very own television network Leafs TV, the Leafs are like something from Orwell, they are always there. And they probably aren’t inclined to share.

For Gary Bettman the headache is surely to get worse before it gets better, while the Leafs and Sabres will have their reasons for protection, other NHL owners may wonder why they are willing to let an opportunity slip by to not pay equalization to a market that doesn’t seem to like hockey that much. The Preds reportedly made the largest withdrawals from the equalization pool, a situation that is likely not to happen upon relocation to a hockey mad market like Hamilton. In addition to putting dollars in their pockets upfront, Balsillie is unlikley to take them out at the other end of the season.

There are rumblings that the NHL is a little put off by the full speed ahead approach of Balsillies group and the forming storm clouds that his entry to the league may bring. Gary Bettman may find that Mr. Balsillie emboldens other owners who may be tiring of the attempts to inject hockey into areas that don’t seem to want it, while those that would be great successes are left off the invitation list. If you were to pick one market for a relocation, you can’t help but think Hamilton is the most likely to succeed. Hockey is the culture of the area, the population not only understands the game, they hold it in reverence like Winnipeg and Quebec City; they share a longing for the game. The NHL would surely do worse than planting its flag in the Steel city.

Already deposits in Hamilton for tickets for a team that may or may not come to town, already outpace ticket sales in the town the franchise sits in. Clearly Hamilton is stepping up to what is their best and probably last chance to gain a franchise, for a Commissioner that claims to want to protect hockey in its homeland the prospect of telling Hamiltonians to get lost can't be a happy one, hence his pursed lips and shifting butt at the Elgin theatre.

The grimace (unintended or not) said it all on Thursday night, Balsillie is becoming the stone in Mr. Bettman’s shoe, only we suspect that betting against the stone would be an unwise choice to make.

Where it leaves the Commissioner when it is all played out could be the larger issue of the NHL for the league and it’s owners, especially if he’s finding himself further and further away from their goals of financial salvation.

Below some links to the growing file of coverage on the chess match that seems to be developing between the Commissioner and the prospective owner.

Hamilton NHL ticket deposits leap past Nashville's base
Preds selling out... in Hamilton
Copps Coliseum designed for expansion
Bettman's Balsillie, U.S. TV contract conundrum
Balsillie good for the NHL
Balsillie buzz swarms award show
Balsillie, NHL on collision course
Bumpy road for Balsillie
Cherry urges NHL to support Balsillie
Sabres mum on Preds potential move
Leipold has millions of reasons to speak up
Predators inch closer to Hamilton
Tickets, who needs tickets?
Balsillie shouldn't overplay his hand
Beware Balsillies competitive fever
Predators owner invokes escape clause in lease
Nashville concentrating on buying more tickets to keep Predators
City rallies around Preds
Nashville fans plan to fight back
NHL, not Balsillie Hamilton's toughest opponent
Hamilton council OKs deal for prospective NHL team
Council's Tennessee two-step
Doughnuts, Copps not appetizing for NHL
Hamilton accepts Preds
Balsillie attracts competition watchdog
Many years in the making

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