On the one hand, he seems to be exactly the kind of owner the NHL would desire - young, loaded with cash generated as a captain of modern industry, a recreational hockey player who has long wanted to own a team, Balsillie has the potential to help move the league forward in a manner completely opposite to the dead weight that is Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz.
On the other hand, Balsillie clearly desires to move a team to either Hamilton or the Kitchener-Waterloo region, as was the case with his aborted takeover of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Given Craig Leipold's declared financial losses over the years, it's easy to conclude that the only reason Balsillie is paying $220 million for an unprofitable team is for the opportunity to move it to a community that's willing to pay any price to see pro hockey. Add in the tremendous appreciation in the Canadian dollar over the last 5 years, and those hockey-mad fans actually have some genuine purchasing power to throw around these days.
Those points, of course, lead some to think that Balsillie is likely to pull a Major League job on Nashville, putting an inferior product on the ice in order to kill attendance and trigger the buyout option in the stadium lease that allows him to skip town in the summer of 2008 for a mere $18 million. The timing of this announcment, just as the marketing push for season tickets was kicking off, appears particularly ill-timed.
In order to help those fans in Nashville who don't quite know what to make of the situation, and provide some insight from other concerned fans around the league who hate to see teams moved (thanks to the many kind emails and comments which have come in the past two days), I'm introducing the Balsilliemeter as a regular feature on this blog. Through my advanced and highly scientific modeling techniques, I've come up with a highly accurate barometer to reflect the attitude of the typical Nashville Predators fan towards their soon-to-be owner.
We're starting Mr. Balsillie's rating here at around 4.5 on a scale of 0 (OMG, are those moving trucks?) to 10 (he cuts a duet with Dolly Parton and greets people with "How y'all are, eh?"). The raw starting point was a middling 5.0, with a slight tick downward based on the lack of substantive comment from Balsillie regarding the upcoming purchase. If he was sold on keeping the team in Nashville, he'd certainly have something positive to say to prospective season ticket purchasers. The Balsilliemeter will be added to the sidebar for a quick and easy read on the anxiety level here in Predators country.
I'll keep a watch on activity in the weeks and months ahead, in terms of business dealings, team management, and of course the handling of free agency in a few week's time. In the short term, the key to keeping the team in Nashville is bumping the per-game paid attendance up above 14,000, which is less than 200 higher than last year's final figure. One season ticket holder I talked to yesterday said he felt like he'd been punched in the gut, but is going to maintain his commitment and try and bring more folks out to the rink this season. I know I'm going to try and do my part as well. Put simply, the 14,000 mark is easily obtainable next season - let's see just how hard Mr. Balsillie tries to make that happen.