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Predators being sold to Canadian billionaire

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -Nashville Predators owner Craig Leipold tapped into country music star power and catchy marketing slogans. He helped the NHL negotiate a new labor deal friendly to small-market franchises and even traded for Peter Forsberg.

After 10 years, it still wasn't enough.

The Wisconsin businessman, tired of losing money, reached an agreement to sell his team to Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, the same man who pulled out of a deal to buy the Pittsburgh franchise in December after the NHL insisted he commit to not moving the Penguins.

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

Might the sale involve relocation of the franchise? 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. An announcement confirming the deal could come Thursday.

Balsillie, the co-CEO of Blackberry makers Research in Motion Ltd., has offered an undisclosed amount for the team, Canadian sports network TSN reported. An amateur hockey player who was one of Time Magazine's "Time 100" in 2005, Basillie withdrew his $175 million offer for the Penguins last winter.

Cities interested in the Penguins then included Kansas City, Mo.; Houston; Portland, Ore.; and Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Leipold helped bring the NHL to 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.

The nontraditional hockey market 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 of seasons when the excitement and novelty wore off, and the team struggled to grow from expansion franchise to playoff contender. The Predators earned their first postseason berth in 2004, only to lose the next season to the lockout.

Leipold helped negotiate the current labor agreement, a deal that included revenue sharing, a salary cap and cash for small-market teams. But those small-market teams must reach certain attendance marks to earn their full shares.

He signed star forward Paul Kariya in 2005, free agent center Jason Arnott last summer, then traded for Forsberg in February to try and 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 the Sommet Group, which bought the naming rights, was not immediately returned Wednesday night.

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 fans 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 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.

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