Monday January 15th, 2007

Savor the moment, Predators fans.

Your team holds the top spot in the Central Division and, with two games in hand, could overtake Anaheim for first overall in the Western Conference. Your Preds are monsters at home, carving out a 15-3-3 record at the GEC, and have won eight of their last 10. And you get to see genuine gate attractions in Paul Kariya and Tomas Vokoun, and stars-in-the-making Alexander Radulov and Shea Weber.

And finally, after years of smart drafting, shrewd trades and clever free-agent signings, your team is in contention for the Cup.

Alas, it's hard to believe the club might be pricing the cost of moving vans in the near future.

Put down the phones and leave the placards in the garage, all ye faithful. No need to start the Save Our Preds campaign just yet. But understand this: the wheels recently set into motion suggest that the time for action may not be far off.

Team owner Craig Leipold took to the airwaves in Nashville last week to discuss his desire to sell up to 40 percent of the Preds to local buyers. The reason? The team is struggling desperately at the gate, ranking 23rd in the league. Despite all the winning, attendance is dwindling -- making it likely the Preds will miss the average marks necessary to qualify for revenue sharing from the league. And that's money they can't do without.

Wisconsin native Leipold believes that local ownership is the missing ingredient to financial stability. A familiar name (or two or three), he reasons, will open the doors to the local businesses whose involvement can help secure the team's footing.

It should be made clear that the issue at hand isn't fan support. The die-hards at the Gaylord Entertainment Complex are as passionate and loyal as you'll find in the league. It's the empty seats that splatter the high-dollar lower bowl, and the rows of unoccupied luxury boxes that are the real problem.

A Preds official was quoted in The Tennessean as saying that the team currently had a ticket base of 65 percent individual buyers and 35 percent corporate, and that they needed to flip those numbers around to be successful in the long term. Considering the trends, that looks like a pipe dream.

When the franchise was granted and excitement was high, the team had something on the order of 4,000 business accounts. Today, the number is less than half that -- despite the team's winning ways, which tends to boost ticket sales in other markets.

All this suggests that local businesses aren't turning their backs on the Preds simply because of a lack of a recognizable face glad-handing them in the owner's box. The reality is that Nashville is what euphemistically is referred to as a "non-traditional market," which means the majority of those in the city either don't know about hockey or aren't inclined to care. That includes those with the means to make an impact on the ticket situation.

According to a story last week in the Nashville City Paper, the Predators recently approached 250 of the top local companies about getting involved. Less than one-third of those companies allowed the team 30 minutes to make a sales presentation. A total of 10 -- yes, 10 -- of the town's top 250 companies actually agreed to purchase ticket packages.

An optimist might suggest this means that a town with less than 10 years of pro sports presence doesn't yet fully grasp the potential of holding season tickets. But more likely it's an accurate reading of the business community's interest in the sport, and it's read on the value of these tickets as a marketing tool for their local clients.

The soft gate at last week's game against the Ducks (11,821) highlighted that fact, but that's just the first headline of many to come. The Preds, it turns out, have a clause that allows them to break their lease at the GEC in 2008, making a move out of Nashville an imminent possibility.

But that impending escape clause is not the only reason that Leipold is going public with his plan now. It's all about timing. At this very moment, the first-place Preds are as attractive an opportunity as they've ever been. For a local, the chance to be associated with a winner is far more appealing than a struggling expansion club. And as good as they are now, the talent pool suggests even better times are ahead. If ever there was a time for someone to buy into the Predators, to buy into Nashville, this is it.

But like all the best deals, this offer won't last long. If no one steps up soon, relocation is a legitimate option. And no one with the best interests of downtown Nashville in mind should fail to recognize that.

That doesn't mean Kansas City officials should look to the Preds as Plan B in case the Penguins don't take up their generous offer ... at least not yet. Leipold has stated emphatically that the team isn't moving -- especially not to KC -- and that his goal is to win a Stanley Cup in Nashville. But a variation on those same soothing words has been spoken at one time or another by just about every owner who eventually uprooted a franchise.

You can take Leipold at his word that it is his deepest desire to keep the team in Nashville. This is a guy who has bucked the trend by employing the same coach and GM for nine seasons, so he's not inclined to make a rash decision based on the short-term impact.

But business doesn't have a lot of patience for deep desires. The Preds can't survive long-term in Nashville without a massive increase in corporate support. And that's no idle threat.

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