Preds owner Leipold reportedly reaches deal with Canadian billionaire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold reached an agreement to sell his franchise to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie after 10 years of losing money.

Leipold told Predators employees of the sale in a meeting Wednesday afternoon in Nashville, according a person familiar with the sale who spoke to The Associated Press on Wednesday night on condition of anonymity because the deal had not been finalized.

Whether the sale would involve relocation of the franchise remained unknown. The NHL's Board of Governors must approve any sale, but the Predators have struggled to sell tickets for years and their future in Nashville has been in doubt.

Team officials declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press.

Balsillie, the co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd., has offered an undisclosed amount for the team, Canadian sports network TSN reported. In December, Balsillie withdrew his offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins for $175 million.

An announcement confirming the deal could come Thursday.

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 postseason berth in 2004 only to lose the next season to the NHL lockout.

Leipold helped the NHL negotiate the current labor 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 center Jason Arnott last summer and traded for Peter Forsberg
in February to try to boost the Predators' chances for postseason 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.

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.