By Jim Diamond
When the official announcement that Nashville will host the 2016 All-Star Game was made Friday morning at Bridgestone Arena, it was the culmination of many years of gambles that many people took on the city of Nashville and on the Predators as well.
Several of those people were sitting on the dais in the newly-christened Lexus Lounge on the arena’s event level during the announcement. One of the first to speak was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who awarded Nashville a conditional franchise back in 1997.
Bettman has been the NHL’s top man since 1993, when the league consisted of 24 teams. Under his guidance, the league has expanded to 30 teams, some in markets not previously viewed as ones people would consider hockey hotbeds.
During Bettman’s tenure, teams based in warmer locales like Dallas, Texas, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Anaheim and Los Angeles, California have all won the Stanley Cup.
When he was introduced Friday, many in attendance applauded Bettman. That kind of a response was in stark contrast to the type he usually receives in many NHL cities, where boos often rain down upon the man who has overseen multiple lockouts, including one that saw an entire season cancelled.
“Don’t stop, I’m not used to that,” Bettman joked to the cheering crowd.
Asked Friday if he will look back on Nashville as one of his prouder achievements when his tenure as commissioner eventually comes to an end, Bettman deflected any attention away from himself.
“I’m not one who looks back,” Bettman said. “We always believed that this would be a great place for NHL hockey and we believe that has been the case.”
Not all of Bettman’s gambles have paid off though. Atlanta was awarded an expansion franchise at the same time Nashville was, and the Thrashers began play a season after the Predators. Numerous factors contributed to the demise of Atlanta and their eventual move to Winnipeg, including poor on-ice results as well as ownership woes. The league had to take over the troubled then Phoenix Coyotes, where again, ownership issues and poor attendance plagued the team.
If You Build It
Nashville mayor Karl Dean’s two terms in office have been unparalleled in terms of the number and size of capital projects undertaken in the city. New sidewalks and bike lanes line the streets, and major construction projects have transformed the city’s skyline.
No project was bigger in scope and cost than the Music City Center, Nashville’s hulking new convention center, located just steps from Bridgestone Arena’s Demonbreun Street-facing entrance. More than $620 million of public money was spent on the 2.1 million square ft. monolith. A swing and a miss on the Music City Center project would have been devastating for Dean and his legacy as mayor.
Major sporting events are rarely just about the games themselves. Events surrounding the games are opportunities for organizations to showcase their sports to many more than are able to attend the actual games. Dean’s gamble with money entrusted to him by the taxpayers of Davidson County has earned Nashville several events like the SEC basketball tournament, the NCAA Women’s Final Four, and now the NHL’s All-Star Game.
A paucity of hotel rooms downtown has been addressed with several newly constructed ones built near the Music City Center. Both Bettman and the mayor said that enough hotel rooms and a convention center big enough to house the events the NHL hosts in conjunction with the All-Star Game were all keys to the award.
“I think the Music City Center certainly pushed it along,” Dean said. “I think the hotels and the restaurants and just the excitement about downtown Nashville got it done.”
Several members of the Metro Council, the county’s governing body Dean needed to gain approval from to get the Music City Center built, attended Friday’s announcement.
For several years, Dean has been lobbying Bettman about allowing Nashville to host the event. Previous commitments to other cities, the lockout that cost Columbus their previously awarded All-Star Game – this season’s game was given to them to make up for the lockout-lost one – and the fact that the game is not played during Olympic years, have all delayed the award to Nashville that finally came Friday.
“We’ve been talking about this since we got the franchise local ownership and re-stabilized the team,” Dean said. “This is great to see the day finally arrive. I’ve mentioned it to the commissioner almost every time I have seen him over the last few years. I’m thrilled. This is going to be a great thing for the city.”
Local Owners Save the Team
Tom Cigarran, one of the members of the local ownership group, was on the dais Friday as well. Cigarran, who eschewed his traditional Predators gold ball cap in favor of neatly combed white hair, is the chairman and governor of the Predators.
Asked if getting awarded the All-Star Game was the highest of validations for the risk that he and the rest of the ownership group took many years ago, Cigarran thought for a second and nodded his head in agreement.
“I think it probably is,” he said. “I think it says that we have a very successful franchise in the context of the National Hockey League and that the league believes in us and what we are going to do. It is very satisfying to get it.”
That local ownership group that Dean referred to, Predators Holdings, LLC, bought the team from original owner Craig Leipold late in 2007.
After another first-round playoff exit in the spring of 2007, Leipold said that he couldn’t do it any longer. The team was hemorrhaging money, and as it was later learned, Leipold had the opportunity to purchase the Minnesota Wild, a team located not far from his Wisconsin home.
Leipold initially agreed to sell the team to then Blackberry billionaire Jim Balsillie in the summer of 2007. The bombastic Balsillie indicated that he would keep the team in Nashville, right before taking deposits on season tickets for the Hamilton (Ontario) Predators. Balsillie’s shady dealings angered both Leipold and the NHL, and that deal to sell the team to him was soon quashed.
Boots Borrowing Benjamins
With the future of the Predators in doubt, a group of mostly local business-people cobbled together the funding to purchase the team from Leipold with the express aim of keeping the team in Nashville.
It was later learned that Leipold was in such a hurry to get out of his ownership of the Predators and into his ownership of the Wild that he loaned $10 million to William “Boots” Del Biaggio, one of the non-Nashville based members of the Predators purchasers, to expedite the sale.
Not long after the sale was completed, it was learned that Del Biaggio was a fraudster, and he was soon arrested on several counts of swindling money from institutions as well as individuals, comically one of which was Leipold. Late in 2009, Del Biaggio was given an eight-year prison sentence for his shady financial dealings.
The ownership group was placed in the uncomfortable situation of having to absorb the rather large stake that Del Biaggio bought with fraudulently obtained money. Once again, the owners stitched together the dollars needed to satisfy the bankruptcy court handling the disposition of Del Biaggio’s case and take over his stake in the team.
Following the Boots bailout, ownership group member David Freeman had a lien placed on him by the Internal Revenue Service due to a failure to pay taxes. Freeman had loaned the team some money as part of the purchase of the team and of Del Biaggio’s share, and that caused a personal cash shortfall for him.
Early in 2010, Freeman stepped aside as the team’s chairman, giving way to Cigarran. Freeman is still listed as one of the members of Predators Holdings, LLC.
High-Profile Name for the Building
Speaking of shysters, the Predators fell victim to another one when former Sommet Group managing director Brian Whitfield ran into trouble with both the IRS and the FBI late in 2009. Sommet was a weird conglomeration of companies that no one quite understood. They bought the naming rights to the arena in 2007, but later defaulted on payments to the Predators for those naming rights, and the Sommet name was abruptly removed from the building.
Sommet’s ouster opened the doors for another company to step in and grab the naming rights to the building at 501 Broadway. After briefly re-naming it its original moniker of Nashville Arena, Bridgestone stepped in and put their name on the barn in February of 2010.
Nashville is the home to the corporate offices for Bridgestone Americas. Bridgestone has been a sponsor of the NHL for many years and is the title sponsor for the NHL’s Winter Classic, a marquee event each season.
Bridgestone Americas CEO and president Gary Garfield was in attendance Friday and he wore an ear-to-ear smile while holding court in the building that displays the name of his company.
“It’s been a great partnership with the Predators and our partnership with the National Hockey League actually started a year or two before that, and that has been a great partnership too,” Garfield said. “Wonderful forum for us to promote our brand, promote our name, promote our tires. We plan on hopefully maintaining this partnership for a very, very long time.”
Asked if Bridgestone had any big plans for outfitting the arena’s Zambonis with some special tires for the All-Star Game, Garfield sounded like there was something already in the works.
“I think we may do a couple of things like that, a couple of surprises on the tires,” he said.
No matter what the tires on the Zambonis look like in late January 2016, the fact that the All-Star Game will be played in Nashville is a testament to numerous individuals and companies who persevered through some tough times because they believed in the team as well as the city in which it plays.
“This franchise is going to be here forever,” Cigarran said. “We haven’t heard any of this, ‘Oh are they going to get this attendance or are they going to move?’ when was the last time you heard that, like two or three years ago? Because now we are in a stage where we are in a growth mode, we are in a positive mode.”
That positive mode should continue. On the ice, the team is off to a fast start to their 2014-15 season. Away from the ice, serious preparations for the All-Star Game weekend that will come to Nashville in 14 months have begun. Many worked hard for this reward, but they will work even harder now that they received it.