Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The ongoing tale of Balsillie's pursuit of an NHL team

Jim Balsillie of RIM fame, according to reports, now wants to buy the Buffalo Sabres. He might not even have to move them, since they're so close to Canada and draw lots of Canadian fans anyway.

But we keep hearing how the has blackballed Balsillie in earlier attempts to buy the Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators, how it's an anti-Canadian thing, how commissioner Gary Bettman has a personal dislike for Balsillie, etc.

Balsillie suggested otherwise at the Canadian Press dinner in Toronto on Thursday night.

From a story moved by CP: About his unsuccessful attempts to acquire an hockey team,Balsillie said he still likes the idea of there being another Canadianteam.

But, he says, the move had to be "coherent" and done for the right reasons.

"There'snothing personal in any of this. The issue is whether we agree or not.It's an issue of what's right and what do we believe in and what doesthe market believe in and what Canadians believe," he said.

"The tension lies in fundamental visions of status quo versus evolution."

Whether personal animosity is a factor, only Bettman and Balsillie truly know . It does seem silly, on the surface, that the would not want to have a billionaire in the lodge. He's got the money, he's a Canadian, a hockey fan and player who dabbles in recreational leagues and is obviously a sharp businessman, having helped build RIM into one of the world's most successful and innovative companies.

And keep in mind the has historically never turned down owners with deep pockets, sometimes to the league's detriment at least in public perception. One example is one-time New York Islanders co-owner Sanjay Kumar pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and securities fraud charges in a $400 million accounting fraud scandal. On the ice and at the gate, the has long tried to push hockey into virgin U.S. territories like Florida, Arizona and Georgia, with obvious results. Those teams are financial disasters.

Balsillie is not a Kumar. He's a reputable, solid businessman whose company employs thousands and is among Canada's most philanthropic.

So what's not to like?

Well, has the thought ever occurred to anyone that the league might not want Balsillie because, frmom the's point of view chances are, he'd be an interfering-type owner and thus a headache the doesn't need? He's known for being stubborn and uncompromising, for not giving in, for wanting to win. It is part of his success formula and it's obviously worked.

Still, it has had its costs. Look at the patent infringement case that NTP, a Virginia-based patent holding company, launched against RIM in 2000. RIM fought this in court, and eventually wound up having to pay a settlement of $612.5 million US after a long process that followed RIM's initial appeal of court-awarded damages of $33 million.

As for the history of Balsillie's pursuit of an team: He said he wasn't interested in buying the Penguins. Then he tried to. Then he said he wasn't going to move the Predators. Then he began selling tickets in Hamilton, before the Preds sale was even approved.

From the's perspective, this is someone who does not play well with others. It's not a natural fit for a commissioner, Gary Bettman, who despite cheap-shot characterizations of his physical stature and hockey knowledge, does have the support of the owners, not least as a result of his leadership in taking the players association to the woodshed during the 2004-05 lockout that cancelled an entire season.

With all this in mind, if you were running a sports league and were considering whether to let prospective new owner Balsillie in, might you not be a bit gun-shy? Particularly if you've dealt with him and have the Pittsburgh and Nashville experiences to go on as a demonstration of how Balsillie might be to deal with?

And even if Balsillie does wind up in the (one wonders why he doesn't just buy the league itself), is it too much of a stretch to suggest that soon after he took over he'd be like any other hockey fan who fancies himself a coach or general manager, advising on trades and who to give ice time to?

There's far more going on here than simplistic analyses suggest.


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