Mogul scores Preds' share

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

Less than a year after inquiring about joining the Flames ownership group, Calgary billionaire Brett Wilson has a handshake agreement in place to buy shares of the Nashville Predators.

Informed by Flames president Ken King last spring none of the team's owners had plans to sell their interests, Wilson turned to Predators majority owner David Freeman, striking a deal to purchase their third pro-sports franchise together.

"We shook hands on the deal -- we just haven't got it papered," Wilson told the Sun yesterday, cautiously optimistic the lengthy approval process is a mere formality.

"The league still has to approve some of the nuances of what we're doing and the other owners have to be happy with the deal being cut with me. ... I've anticipated we'd get to this stage, but when I go to pull the pin on the wire transfer or write the cheque, then I'll get excited. Until then, we're not done. But I'd still bet on me."

Freeman has made a bid to a bankruptcy trustee to buy the 27% stake in the club formerly held by admitted fraudster William (Boots) Del Biaggio, but Wilson insists his share in the team would be "nominal."

And while he is the lead investor of the group that recently paid $97 million to buy second-division English soccer club Derby County, the 51-year-old entrepreneur insists he has no desire to run any of the sports teams he owns -- or run them out of town.

"If I can add something from a marketing or finance perspective that's great, but as I said to a British tabloid the coach will never be calling me for my advice on what to do in the second- half of any game," said Wilson, who also owns a minor league baseball team in Jackson, Tenn., with Freeman.

"I have no interest in moving a team anywhere. I love the town and I have other business interests down there. I've got property and am looking at a couple music industry investments down there."

A longtime investment banker in the oil and gas industry who is also a panelist on the CBC's Dragon's Den, Wilson is one of Canada's wealthiest and most generous philanthropists. He recently stepped down as chairman of FirstEnergy Corp., the investment bank he co-founded 15 years ago, so he could focus on the sports and entertainment business, which he calls, "the real fun."

Wilson met Freeman 15 months ago in Nashville, where the Saskatchewan native has also invested in the talents of Canadian country singer Beverley Mahood.

A Flames season ticket holder, who also once looked into buying the Oilers, Wilson said his first choice has long been to own the Flames team he cheers for nightly.

"That's an ownership group I'd love to be part of -- it's not that they don't want me, they just don't need me," said Wilson of the well-respected group he knows personally.

"Before I bought into Nashville, I gave Ken King a call and asked 'is there anyone looking for liquidity in the next 12 to 24 months?' He said, 'Brett, there's not.' And that's fine."

So, he pursued the Predators, has since met with Gary Bettman and is being checked out by the league.

"It's fair to say I cheer for two teams except for the nights the Flames play the Preds -- then it's only one team," he laughed.

"Honestly, if a chance to buy the Flames on terms that were attractive came along, I might have to rethink what I was doing. ... But there's no reason not to be in the game just because one day the Flames might be willing to bring on another owner."

He's open to any possibility. After all, his conversations with the Flames were much different in the '90s.

"When the Flames were having problems 10 years ago I used to joke with (co-owner) Al Markin that we could agree on the price of his shares but we just couldn't agree on who was going to pay who," laughed Wilson.

"He had to keep writing cheques to keep them alive."

Something he's confident he won't have to do in Nashville once his ownership stake is official.

ERIC.FRANCIS@SUNMEDIA.CA


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