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Predators owner Leipold, members of local group meeting with NHL

Gerry Helper, vice president of communications for the Predators, said Leipold and members of the local group bidding to buy the team were in New York to see Bettman.

"Craig is trying to afford the local group every opportunity to put an offer in place. Beyond that, it's not appropriate to comment further," Helper said.

Herb Fritch, chief executive officer of HealthSpring Inc. in Nashville, and one of the leaders of the local group, didn't attend the meeting but confirmed that investors met with Leipold, Bettman and other NHL officials.

"The results 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," Fritch said. "While we have not yet signed a purchase agreement, our discussions were encouraging for Nashville if we can move quickly and decisively to ensure the team's long-term financial stability."

Fritch declined to detail what the group is offering for the team. He said investors have not yet signed a letter of intent.

Helper wouldn't comment when asked if the meeting was Bettman's introduction to the group of businessmen or a session that could produce a letter of intent. The group is trying to counter offers from Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and California businessman William "Boots" Del Biaggio for the team.

Leipold said he's trying to sell the team after losing approximately US$70 million since being awarded the expansion franchise in 1997.

The local group, which also includes 36 Venture Capital CEO David Freeman, who attended Wednesday's meeting, submitted a bid for the Predators in early July but hasn't discussed the amount.

Balsillie's bid of $220 million has stalled since a letter of intent signed in May, and Del Biaggio offered $190 million. Del Biaggio has an agreement with the Sprint Center to own any NHL team that relocates to Kansas City.

"Obviously a local bid is a positive for both the league and the city of Nashville," Balsillie's lawyer Richard Rodier told The Canadian Press on Wednesday. "The commissioner is on record as being in favour 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 NHL didn't immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment Wednesday.

But the chairman of a Nashville group planning a day-long "Our Team" rally Thursday to push a separate local effort to sell at least 3,000 season tickets greeted the news as a positive.

"No question about that," said Ron Samuels, president of Avenue Bank and chairman of the "Our Team" effort. "It'll be exciting to have that on the agenda. I will certainly keep my ear close to the ground here to find out what happens. When you get what we hope is going to be a large crowd out there, it's something you could really rally around."

The "Our Team" group is working to ensure the Predators' lease remains in effect after the 2007-08 season no matter who winds up owning the team. The Predators averaged 13,815 in paid attendance this season after finishing third in the NHL with 110 points.

Leipold exercised a clause in June that would allow the team to end the arena lease if the Predators don't average a minimum of 14,000 in paid attendance.

Thursday's rally starts at 6 a.m. CT and will feature a day-long radio show with the arena open to fans coming to survey potential seats. The event includes box lunches provided by six hotels, Predators players Ryan Suter and Vern Fiddler showing off the team's new uniform and an appearance by the state's first lady, Andrea Conte.

Samuels said they've enjoyed watching the ownership group make their pitch but can't control who buys the team.

"We'd love to have local ownership. But we think people no matter who the owners are, once they come to Nashville, they'll love being here and find out Nashville is hugely supportive," he said.

But fan support hasn't been the Predators' biggest problem. The team needs to boost tickets bought by businesses. Leipold said that has been 35 per cent of the team's ticket base compared to 65 per cent fans, which is nearly the opposite of other NHL teams.


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