Sale terms call for deal to be completed by June 30

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Craig Leipold patiently worked to build an NHL franchise and turned the Nashville Predators into one of the league's best teams. If they win a Stanley Cup, it won't be with him.

Leipold confirmed Thursday he has signed a letter of intent to sell the franchise to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie for $220 million after losing $70 million in 10 years of ownership.

"I'm tired of losing money," Leipold said. "I found someone willing to step up and invest in this team and make it happen."

The terms of the sale, which must be approved by the NHL's Board of Governors, call for the deal to be completed by June 30.

Leipold has owned the team since paying most of the $80 million for the franchise awarded in June 1997, the first team of the NHL's last expansion phase. Leipold helped negotiate the NHL's new labor agreement, which features revenue sharing for small-market teams.

But he had been talking to Balsillie since January and decided to sell after losing $15 million this past season on top of $12 million the season before. The Predators finished third in the league standings this season with a franchise-record 110 points but averaged 13,815 in paid attendance.

"I have come to the conclusion that I cannot make it work here," said Leipold, who became emotional and had to pause at one point.

"We are one of the elite teams in this league, and we are by far the lowest-revenue team in the league," he said.

Balsillie, who withdrew a $175 million offer to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins in December because of the league did not want him to relocate, did not attend the news conference. The co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd. said in a statement he is thrilled to have a chance to buy the Predators.

The billionaire said he is respectful of all the "due diligence" required before the deal can close.

"This is still Craig Leipold's franchise until the deal is completed, so for me to comment at this time on any number of topics relative to the franchise would not be appropriate," Balsillie said.

Leipold said he hopes Balsillie's business skill can tap into the corporate support he never found to help him make a profit. He said he made money one year, and that was $640,000.

It's not that this market doesn't have deep pockets.

Nicknamed Music City USA for the country and Christian music industries, the area features headquarters for Nissan North America Inc., Dollar General Corp. and HCA Inc. Pharmacy benefits manager Caremark Rx Inc., recently bought by CVS Corp., has offices here. CBRL Group, which owns the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain, is headquartered nearby.

Louisiana-Pacific Corp. recently moved its headquarters here and signed a 10-year, $30 million for naming rights to the NFL's Tennessee Titans' stadium last year.

Leipold signed a new naming rights deal for the arena last week after informing the managing partner of the Sommet Group of the pending sale.

"They're trickling in, but not the big hit. There are some major corporations that are just completely missing in action in our business. It's not because we haven't knocked on their door," Leipold said.

Whether the Predators remain in Nashville past the 2007-08 season remains the biggest question still unanswered.

Leipold has until June 19 to exercise a "cure" clause in the team's arena lease that would force the city to buy tickets and ensure attendance averages 14,000 next season. Leipold said he has not yet discussed with Balsillie whether to exercise that clause but will.

Balsillie will have to sign a consent agreement with the NHL including a clause that prevents a new owner from relocating the team for seven years. But an arena lease would have to be in effect to force the new owner to follow that league requirement.

Averaging 14,000 paid attendance in 2007-08 would keep the lease in effect. Leipold said fans easily could help keep the team in Nashville if they turn out for games, because the prospect of relocation is not good for hockey right now.

"They know how hard we've worked in this market and the things we've done, the group that we have and the team that's already here," Leipold said of NHL officials.

Balsillie plans to visit Nashville, talk with Predators fans and "become more familiar with the community" but not until the deal is final.

Coach Barry Trotz, whose option for the next season was picked up recently, said he spent Wednesday night calling players. He hasn't met the prospective owner but likes what he has read of the amateur hockey player.

"He says, 'I want my name on the Cup.' There's only one way to do it, and you have to win it. So I'm really excited about that," Trotz said.