Local ownership group takes first step

Thursday, July 19, 2007 at 1:28am

This is a case where the last might be first.

The local ownership group pursuing the purchase of the Nashville Predators was the last bid of three made for the team. While no one knows the exact figure, it is also may be the lowest bid.

Wednesday morning David Freeman, CEO of 36 Venture Capital LLC, and Predators owner Craig Leipold, met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league officials in New York City. A letter of intent was not signed.

“This was more of a get-to-know-you meeting with the NHL,” said Herb Fritch, CEO of HealthSpring, who is also part of the ownership group but did not make the trip. “They want to be comfortable with us. We want to be comfortable with them and their requirements.”

All reports are that the meeting was a positive one. There is speculation that the group has moved ahead of California businessman William “Boots” del Biaggio III as the leading contender for the franchise.

Freeman, the primary financial investor in the Nashville Hockey Ownership Group, released a statement concerning the meeting late Wednesday afternoon.

“The result of today’s meeting is that Nashville has the opportunity to move very quickly to retain the Predators and to do so under local ownership,” Freeman said. “While we have not yet signed a purchase agreement, our discussions were very encouraging for Nashville if we can move quickly and decisively to ensure the club’s long-term financial stability.

“Our group, Mr. Leipold, and the league are anxiously awaiting the results of the Our Team rally at The Sommet Center. Keeping the Predators in Nashville will continue to be a broad-based community effort, and we hope that tomorrow’s rally will demonstrate the support the club needs on an ongoing basis from both the fans and the business community.”

Freeman also thanked Leipold for his support and the willingness of the NHL to listen to the group’s proposal.

“This is simply part of the process,” said Gerry Helper, senior vice-president/communications and development, for the Predators. “Craig has tried to give the local group every opportunity to put their group and offer together to purchase the team.”

Despite the encouraging words, some sources have indicated that local fans should not read too much into the meeting. The next step would be to sign a letter of intent that would grant the local group exclusive negotiating rights. A binding agreement would mean that Leipold has received some money to begin the process of sealing the deal. There appears to be no firm timetable on either side of the negotiations.

“Craig is driving the process,” Fritch said. “He is the one doing the selling.”

No one is saying how many investors are involved with the local group. There has also been no mention publicly about the size of the local group’s bid.

“We are a loose group,” Fritch said. “We put this together quickly. That is one of the issues. We have people who say they are interested in being a part of the group. We want those who want to be part of this ownership group to know what we might be going through. We want to make sure everyone connected with this understands and is comfortable with the situation.”

Bernadette Mansur, senior vice-president/communications for the NHL, said in an e-mail that league officials would not be commenting on the meeting.

Jim Balsillie, the Canadian billionaire who has made a bid reported to be between $220 million and $238 million for the Predators, is still watching the situation closely despite being considered a long-shot at this time.

“Obviously a local bid is a positive for both the league and the city of Nashville," Richard Rodier, Balsillie’s attorney, told The Canadian Press. “The commissioner is on record as being in favor of franchise stability in their current locations. And it’s perfectly understandable.

“However, if the local bid is not successful, we remain optimistic that our bid is better in every way than any of the other bids out there.”

The next move on the agenda is today at the Sommet Center. The “Our Team” Group and 104.5 The Zone are spearheading an all-day ticket-thon that will include a rally from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. on the arena floor as well as an unveiling of the new jerseys for next season.

“What we are trying to accomplish with the ticket-thon is to sell 300-to-500 full season or partial season tickets by the end of the day,” said George Plaster, sports director at 104.5 The Zone, the flagship station for the Predators. “That would put us very close to 8,000 season tickets which would be about 700 short of what they sold last season with 2 1/2 months remaining of the prime selling season.”

The local ownership group will be watching the rally closely. Plaster was hesitant to estimate how big the crowd might be, but he is expecting a successful evening.

“There is physical evidence that something is going on,” Plaster said. “Our Team is starting to have an impact. A lot of people that are sitting on the fence are going to get excited.”

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