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Nashville concentrating on buying more tickets to keep Predators

The threat of relocation has hung over the Predators since Craig Leipold announced May 24 he was selling to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie. The co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd. told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman he didn't intend to move the team but now is taking season-ticket deposits in Hamilton.

Nashville's best hope?

Sell more tickets - quickly - to keep whoever ends up owning the Predators from escaping because of poor attendance.

"Our Canadian friend thinks we can't sell 14,000 tickets ...," Butch Spyridon, president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Friday. "I think he's underestimated us."

Balsillie's lawyer Richard Rodier declined to answer questions when reached at his Toronto office. Reports said more than 7,000 fully refundable deposits came in Thursday, the first day deposits were taken.

Spyridon said Balsillie is gambling that Nashville doesn't care enough.

The Predators averaged 13,815 paid attendance during a season in which they finished third in the NHL with 110 points, and Leipold decided Friday to exercise the "cure" clause in the lease forcing Nashville to make up the difference next season.

Websites have been designed and are online.

Fans are calling the NHL office to plead their case, planning rallies and a radio ticket-thon.

Businessmen are networking, trying to convince colleagues to buy the expensive seats that have been empty the past few seasons.

A legal battle easily could develop over the lease for the government-owned arena.

Nashville authorities say Leipold can't use attendance from the first season after the NHL lockout in counting two seasons of attendance under 14,000. But Leipold said in a statement late Friday he had no choice but to tap the clause after five seasons of sub-14,000 attendance.

That's the number the team must meet to collect all of its revenue-sharing money from the NHL. Nashville will be forced to either pay the difference or say no, breaking the lease after the 2007-08 season.

"Our hope remains that the combination of passionate fans that we know this team has, along with renewed efforts of the business community, will enable the franchise to meet the necessary goals to make the franchise successful on and off the ice in Nashville," Leipold said.

Spyridon told the Nashville Sports Authority their goal is selling 3,000 tickets before the season starts through the "Our Team" group. He could not estimate how many tickets have been sold in the week since the group announced its existence but said interest is high from companies previously not involved with the Predators.

"It's our team and our time, and we can keep the Nashville Predators in our town," Spyridon said.

Jim Leutgens, a 44-year-old project administrator for hospital construction, designed a website for fans to vent, plan and lobby others. A season ticket-holder who has doubled his own purchase from two to four for the 2007-08 season, he said they still need to buy more seats, especially if the team stays in Nashville.

"We're going to do everything we can to see that happens," Leutgens said.

The sale must be completed by June 30 under the deal agreed to by Leipold and Balsillie pending an extension. The NHL also must approve the sale, but the proposal is not expected to come up when the league's board of governors meet Wednesday because league bylaws require sufficient advance notice of proposed sales.

Even if fans buy 3,000 more tickets, Balsillie still could buy his way out of the lease.

Sports authority member Steve North pointed out a buyout clause with a prorated scale that could be $27 million now. Spyridon said Balsillie certainly can write that check, leaving Nashville relying on Bettman's promises.

"I think it's a severe black eye on the NHL if we live up to our agreement and they let him break the lease," Spyridon said.

A local group reportedly has emerged to buy the Predators if Balsillie's bid falls through despite Leipold's inability to find a local minority investor.

Both Spyridon and Kevin Lavender, current chairman of the sports authority and former Tennessee banking commissioner, said they had not heard about who might be involved in such a bid. But Spyridon said Nashville is a wealthy community.

"There is a lot of money in this town. ... I'm pretty certain if they're in it, they're in it for keeps," he said.

Middle Tennessee is home to both country and Christian music industries, headquarters for Nissan North America Inc., Dollar General Corp., Louisiana-Pacific Corp., CBRL Group - owner of the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain-and HCA Inc. Pharmacy benefits manager Caremark Rx Inc., recently bought by CVS Corp., has offices here.

For now, the issue is how Nashvillians react. Leutgens credited a local columnist for correctly saying Nashvillians don't get stirred up until their backs are against the wall.

"Then they come out swinging," he said.


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