Balsillie Makes Owners’ Blackberries Shrivel

By Jason Menard

It doesn’t take much for the money men who run the National Hockey League to get their backs up. So it comes as no surprise that when someone shakes them up as much as Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie has recently, they’re going to stiffen up as if someone spiked the owner’s meeting water supply with Viagra.

If the rumours reported earlier today in a Canadian Press report, it appears that Balsillie will come away empty in his second attempt to purchase an NHL franchise. The latest scuttlebutt suggests that Nashville Predators’ owner Craig Leopold will be entertaining a less-lucrative $190 million US offer from William DelBaggio, a California businessman.

For the Predators to take less money from another suitor than was Balsillie offered must make the Canadian franchise-owner-in-waiting feel as if he’s been kicked in the, well, Blackberries. At the very least, he has to feel that this is a personal rejection.

Even though the Predators are rushing to embrace the California-based DelBaggio, one can easily speculate as to what the man they call Boots’ true intentions are. After all, DelBaggio has made no secret of his desire to bring an NHL franchise to Kansas City. Thanks to Balsillie’s aggressive moves earlier this month, we’re well aware of the opportunities that exist to break the Predators’ lease and move the franchise out of Nashville.

The difference between Balsillie and DelBaggio, other than a passport? Transparency. DelBaggio says and does the right things; Balsillie rattles cages and goes his own way. And it’s apparent that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman doesn’t want any mavericks on his watch – that is, unless Mark Cuban wants to pony up for a franchise.

So the Preds’ owner is willing to take a $48 million dollar bath – which represents the difference between Balsillie’s original offer and what’s being reported as the sale price to DelBaggio – then the NHL places quite the premium on conformity.

And that’s why the NHL is doomed to stagnate under its current watch. Hopefully Balsillie will find that the third time in acquiring a franchise truly is the charm – but first the NHL better hope and pray that there is a third time.

Yes, Balsillie was less-than-tactful in his bold efforts to extricate the Predators from the land where country music reigns supreme. But in the end, what exactly did he do? All he showed was that he was able to obtain financial guarantees from people about a product that had yet to be secured. He showed that there was a viable and potentially sustainable third Ontario market ripe for exploitation. And he showed that he was willing to overpay for the right to obtain an NHL franchise.

From the moment he was willing to shell out a whopping $238 million for the moribund Predators’ franchise, he showed that he was the type of owner that the NHL should be falling all over themselves to accommodate. And let’s not forget the extra millions he also was willing to pour into the facilities in Hamilton to bring them up to NHL standard.

With that evidence behind him, would there be any doubt that he’d be an aggressive owner consistently willing to pay to put out a quality product for his fans? I think not.

Say what you want about the aforementioned Cuban, but he’s a fan first who is willing to take care of his fellow fans. He spends money on things that don’t bring an immediate return on investment, but pay off huge dividends long-term. Cuban has made going to Mavericks games an event. He has shelled out copious amounts of money to ensure both his paying public and his paid staff – the players – have the best in all available amenities. And he’s spent money to keep his roster consistently amongst the upper echelon of NBA teams.

Balsillie seems to be cut from the same cloth, so tell me exactly why the NHL wouldn’t want him amongst its ownership group?

No, it’s much better to stay conservative, sell a troubled franchise to an owner who will probably move the club to another unproven marketplace within five years, and waste 10 more years in markets that are just not sustainable long-term.

Ironically, the addition of an owner who would have taken an American club and moved it north of the 49 th would, in the long run, do more for growing the sport south of the border than can ever be served by keeping the Predators in the land of the free. The energy, creativity, and fresh approach that Balsillie would bring to the ownership group, couldn’t help but move forward that seemingly lost cause.

No one wants to use the “E” word, but the NHL needs Jim Balsillie more than he needs it. He wants a club, he’s a fan, and he has very, very deep pockets – and that’s exactly the type of owner the NHL needs. So if the league is adamant about keeping all its franchise where they are, they should look at the only other way to bring in a bright, enthusiastic, and forward-thinking owner – by granting him an expansion franchise.

It’s time for the NHL to be a little more flexible. After all, when something’s too rigid, it’s far easier to break.

2007© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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