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Preds owner Craig Leipold extends exclusive negotiating rights to local group

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Predators owner Craig Leipold decided Wednesday to give more time to the local investors trying to buy the NHL team and keep it in town.

The local investors put down US$10 million as a deposit in August for the $193 million purchase and faced a midnight deadline Wednesday to finalize the sale or lose exclusive negotiating rights.

They have been working with Metro Nashville officials to revise the team's arena lease to give them a better chance of making rather than losing money. Leipold is selling because he estimated he has lost $70 million in his 10 years of ownership.

Leipold said in a statement released by the team late Wednesday afternoon that he had met with Mayor Karl Dean for an update on where the city is in the lease negotiations with the group led by David Freeman. Leipold also met with Freeman for an update on the group's progress toward finalizing this deal.

Leipold didn't say how much more time he is giving them to finish the deal but said he looks forward to completing the sale.

"We understand how complex this transaction is and how much time and effort David, his group, the Mayor's office and others have invested into the process all with a goal of keeping the Predators in Nashville and making the franchise viable for the long-term," Leipold said.

"Based on the progress being made, I am convinced all parties will benefit from extra time to complete this transaction so we will extend the purchase agreement with David's group with a goal of completing the sale as soon as possible."

The investors declined to comment after Leipold announced the extension. But the group does have a new partner. Doug Bergeron is a businessman and friend of California venture capitalist William (Boots) Del Biaggio - who had been the only non-Nashville investor.

Freeman said in a statement that nothing is changing in the ownership group.

"Boots is simply diversifying or diluting his personal interest and bringing another very bright, high quality, hockey-loving investor into his group. We are very happy that Mr. Bergeron will be part of our ownership group," Freeman said.

Leipold didn't say much more himself.

"We do not plan to comment further on the sale status until there is significant and definitive news," Leipold said.

Leipold originally announced a deal to sell his team in May to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie for $220 million. But the deal fell through in June when the co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd. started taking season-ticket deposits in Hamilton.

He remains interested in purchasing the team. Balsillie retained a local lawyer who shared a letter with the Nashville Sports Authority recently in which he called Nashville a great hockey market.

Del Biaggio lost out to Balsillie on his own separate bid to buy the Predators when he had a deal to put a pro team in Kansas City's new arena. He could bid on his own again if this deal falls through.

The local investors have struggled to work out lease changes for the arena because local elections slowed down negotiations. The past mayor preferred to leave the deal to his successor, and Dean has said the investors' deadline was not the city's.

Last week, city officials asked the investors to commit to keeping the Predators here for five years in exchange for subsidies and $6.9 million for further arena upgrades. The investors agreed to the five-year commitment, but they want more help to avoid losing money.

Under the current lease, the team must average 14,000 in paid attendance this season or the lease will be void, allowing the Predators to leave. The team averaged 13,815 in paid attendance last season but is off to a 4-7 start after choosing not to keep expensive players Paul Kariya and Kimmo Timonen.

Dean told The Tennessean earlier Wednesday that the city and the investors have made progress but he wouldn't discuss any changes.

"We're going to keep working," he told the newspaper.


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