The goal is to seek approval from the league’s board of governors and close the sale by June 30, Leipold said, adding he’d lost US$70 million during the team’s nine seasons. Balsillie is co-CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion (TSX:RIM), the company that makes BlackBerry handheld devices.
“This is a dream he’s wanted and he’s stepped up,” said Leipold.
Attendance at Predators home games in 2006-2007 averaged 13,815 – 2,000 below the NHL average – even with some of the lowest ticket prices. There were fewer than 9,000 season ticket subscribers. The team amassed 110 points, which was third best in the league, but still lost US$15 million.
“It’s time to give someone else the chance to take the Nashville Predators to the next level,” Leipold said during a news conference.
Leipold predicted that “we’ll have hockey here for a long time” if attendance improves. Balsillie will make an effort to keep the team in Nashville, he suggested.
“I think he’s going to give it a chance,” said Leipold. “If (attendance) is over 14,000 paid, it’s not going anywhere.”
If paid attendance does not average at least 14,000 next season, the team could pay an exit fee of US$18 million to get out of its arena lease and leave Nashville.
“I have come to the conclusion I cannot make it work here,” said Leipold, adding that perhaps Balsillie will bring new ideas that will turn things around.
Balsillie didn’t immediately return a phone message.
In a statement, Balsillie said he is respectful of all the “due diligence” required before the deal can close.
“This is still Craig Leipold’s franchise until the deal is completed, so for me to comment at this time on any number of topics relative to the franchise would not be appropriate,” Balsillie said in the release.
He added that he planned to visit Nashville, talk with Predators fans and “become more familiar with the community” once the deal is final.
Balsillie tried last autumn to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins. He offered $175 million, but he dropped it when commissioner Gary Bettman attached a list of conditions to the sale.
Among those, it is believed, was the stipulation that he not move the club until after every possible avenue was exhausted.
That condition likely wouldn’t apply to Nashville, given Leipold’s many failed efforts at increasing the club’s corporate support. While the NHL doesn’t want teams moved, Nashville hasn’t shown that it will support the Predators long term.
Speculation has long been that Balsillie would like to bring an NHL team to Waterloo. His biggest hurdle in relocation the Predators would be settling the territorial rights with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres, who would both take issue with another team in the region.
Under NHL by-laws, a team cannot move within 80 kilometres of another city’s corporate limits. Kitchener-Waterloo is just about on the border of the Maple Leafs’ territory.
Leipold said last January he was looking for one or more local investors to buy up to 40 per cent of the team in the hope that local owners could boost attendance. No local buyer or buyers stepped forward.
If the Predators had advanced to the NHL’s conference final or even the championship series, it “could potentially change the whole aspect of this team” and investors might have stepped forward, said Leipold.
“It didn’t work out,” he said. “That’s just the way it is.
“We had injuries and, unfortunately, we got knocked out in the first round.”
Leipold signed a multiyear naming-rights deal for the city’s hockey arena with Franklin, Tenn.-based Sommet Group last week. The revenue from that agreement goes to the team.
It is Leipold’s team until at least June 30.
“This is truly one of the toughest days of my life,” said Leipold. “I poured my heart and soul into this franchise for 10 years.”
He lives in Wisconsin.
“We have had the most incredibly wonderful time owning this team,” he said. “My family, my kids, we just love doing this.”
But he’s tired of losing millions.