Predators fans rally to sell tickets, save their team

AP

Todd Tayes
had been working in his grandmother’s pastry shop, saving his money for a
flat-screen TV. When the 12-year-old boy heard the Nashville Predators needed
to sell more tickets, he changed his plans.

“I
wanted to buy some tickets,” he said.

Tayes and
his uncle, Chris Turner, teamed up Thursday and bought a 13-game package each
— their first ticket purchase — for the upcoming season during a 15-hour
rally held by a local group trying to sell enough season tickets to keep the
Predators’ lease in effect after the 2007-08 season.

The team’s
future ownership is still undecided. A local investors group has been given the
chance to keep the Predators in

Nashville after
meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Wednesday in

New York.

A Canadian
billionaire and a

California
businessman also have separate offers for the Predators, but Jim Balsillie’s
$220-million bid stalled after a letter of intent was signed in May.

Whoever
owns the team would have to spend millions of dollars to break the arena lease
if the “Our Team” effort helps the Predators average a minimum of
14,000 in paid attendance this season. The team averaged 13,815 for 2006-07.

NHL officials
and current owner Craig Leipold monitored Thursday’s rally to see how

Nashville would respond.

“Our
Team” chairman Ron Samuels, president of a local bank, said the group’s
original goal was 300 season tickets sold Thursday. A spokesman for the group said
they broke 500 by 6 p.m. CDT and planned to sell more before the event ended at
9 p.m.

“I
can’t imagine this is not a strong message when you consider that last year at
this same time total new sales for tickets from what I understand were
somewhere around 600 to 750,” Samuels said. “We’re well over that now
at almost 1,500 tickets. That’s a 100 percent increase. That’s pretty strong. I
would think this is certainly showing the NHL and others that

Nashville’s thirsty for hockey.”

The
“Our Team” group would like to break the 14,000 minimum and hit
16,000 to help the team’s eventual owner field a more competitive team.

The
Predators are coming off a season in which they finished third in the NHL
regular season with a franchise-high 110 points, only to lose to the San Jose
Sharks for the second consecutive time in the first round of the playoffs.

Anticipating
a lower budget for next season, the Predators let top scorer Paul Kariya leave
as free agent, and traded top goalie Tomas Vokoun, defenseman Kimmo Timonen and
forward Scott Hartnell.

Leipold,
awarded the expansion franchise in June 1997, announced in May he was selling
the team after losing $70 million in the club’s 10-year history.

On
Thursday, fans had the chance to enjoy a live band at midday, eat $5 box
lunches provided by neighboring hotels and check out seats they wanted to buy
while watching highlights on the scoreboard.

A bigger
event planned Thursday night was to feature the team’s mascot, Gnash, unveiling
the Predators’ new sweater, with defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Vern
Fiddler, a live band and Tennessee’s first lady, Andrea Conte.

David
Freeman, chief executive officer of 36 Venture Capital, and Herb Fritch, CEO of
HealthSpring Inc., are part of the Nashville group bidding for the Predators.
Both men planned to stop by the rally to thank the organizers.

Freeman
said everyone has agreed not to discuss their talks in public, including their
offer, but said everything is moving in the right direction with Leipold and
the NHL giving Nashville another chance to show it wants the Predators.

“That’s
a wonderful position to be in, to know that it’s in our hands now. Craig
Leipold couldn’t have been any more generous to allow this city another
opportunity,” Freeman said.

“I
don’t know if people will recognize what Craig has really done here and what a
great gift he’s given to the city to allow it a chance to more or less buy its
own hockey team back.”