Preds owner Leipold reportedly reaches deal to sell team

Associated
Press

Nashville
Predators owner Craig Leipold reached an agreement to sell his franchise to
Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie after 10 years of losing money.

Leipold
told Predators’ employees of the sale in a meeting Wednesday afternoon in
Nashville, according a person familiar with the sale who spoke to The
Associated Press on Wednesday night on condition of anonymity because the deal
had not been finalized.

Whether
the sale would involve relocation of the franchise remained unknown. The NHL’s
Board of Governors must approve any sale, but the Predators have struggled to
sell tickets for years and their future in

Nashville has been in doubt.

Team
officials declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

Balsillie,
the co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd., has offered an
undisclosed amount for the team, Canadian sports network TSN reported. In
December, Balsillie withdrew his offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins for $175
million.

An announcement
confirming the deal could come Thursday.

Leipold, a
Wisconsin businessman, teamed up with

Nashville
in the mid-1990s when then-mayor Phil Bredesen, now

Tennessee’s governor, built an arena and
started looking for either an NBA or NHL expansion franchise.

Nashville

and Leipold landed the expansion
franchise in June 1997, and the Predators played their first game in October
1998.

But ticket
sales lagged after the first couple seasons when the excitement and novelty
wore off, and the team struggled to work from expansion franchise to playoff
contender. The Predators earned their first postseason berth in 2004 only to
lose the next season to the NHL lockout.

Leipold
helped the NHL negotiate the current labor agreement after the lockout in the
2004-05 season, a deal that included revenue sharing, a salary cap and cash for
small-market teams.

He went
out and signed forward Paul Kariya in 2005, signed free agent center Jason
Arnott last summer and traded for Peter Forsberg in February to try and boost
the Predators’ chances for postseason success.

Leipold
had been looking for a local investor to buy a minority share of the team and
lobbying publicly the past months for more local involvement to boost lagging
ticket sales.

He
announced a new, multiyear naming rights deal for the arena last Friday that he
called a big statement for the team’s future in

Nashville.

“These
are the kinds of things we need to have happen,” Leipold said then.
“Without a naming rights partner, without ticket sales, without corporate
sponsors, that’s when we get hurt. This is a great step. It sends the great
message, and hopefully it’ll get other companies calling as well.”

A
telephone message left at the home Brian Whitfield, the managing partner for
Sommet Group, which bought the naming rights, was not immediately returned.

The
Predators are coming off their best season yet with a franchise record 110
points and a third-place finish in the league standings.

But they
lost in the opening round of the playoffs for a third straight season.

The team
averaged only 13,815 per game this season, which gives Leipold or the new
owner a chance to exercise a clause in the contract with the city of

Nashville to ask for a
“cure” season.

That would
force

Nashville
to either buy enough tickets to boost attendance to 14,000. If the city
declined, the team could leave by paying an exit fee following the upcoming
season.