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Predators being sold to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie

The co-CEO of Waterloo, Ont.-based Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd., has reached a tentative agreement to buy the Nashville Predators, a source close the negotiations confirmed to the Canadian Press on Wednesday. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The deal would have to be investigated and approved by the NHL's board of governors before it became official.

A message left for Balsillie was not immediately returned.

In December, Balsillie withdrew his offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins for US$175 million after the NHL put terms on the sale that he considered unreasonable, including a condition preventing Balsillie from moving the team out of Pittsburgh.

Speculation had swirled that Balsillie wanted move the team to Hamilton, which is close to his home and RIM's head office, a move that Lemieux said he was opposed to.

"It was very important for us to keep it here it Pittsburgh," Lemieux said when Balsillie signed the purchase agreement. "I think Jim is committed as long as we build a new arena and we have a fair deal."

Whether the sale would involve relocation of the Predators was not immediately known. The Predators have struggled to sell tickets for years and their future in Nashville has been in doubt after losing money for 10 straight years.

An announcement confirming the deal could come Thursday.

Current Predators owner Craig 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 post-season berth in 2004 only to lose the next season to the NHL lockout.

Leipold helped the NHL negotiate the current labour 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 centre Jason Arnott last summer and traded for Peter Forsberg in February to try and boost the Predators' chances for post-season 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 with little success.

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.



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