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Rich suitor calls for Lightning

William Davidson, a Detroit-area businessman worth about $4-billion, is looking into the possibility of adding the Tampa Bay Lightning to his sports and entertainment empire.

Davidson, owner of several teams in the Detroit area, including the NBA's Detroit Pistons and their Palace at Auburn Hills arena, has begun preliminary talks with Lightning attorneys about buying the franchise and the rights to the Ice Palace in downtown Tampa. He has told National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman he would not move the Lightning.

"We have had discussions with representatives of the Pistons and we will continue to have discussions," said Stephen Wayne of the law firm Bingham Dana Murase, which represents Lightning owners Kokusai Green. "We are discussing a possible sale with them as well as several other groups."

Davidson's interest was piqued by his assistant, Tom Wilson, the president of the Pistons and Palace Sports Entertainment, who said if Davidson can't make the Lightning profitable in Tampa Bay, no one can.

"I saw some articles on the Lightning situation and it kind of intrigued me," Wilson said. "I thought maybe there is an opportunity there."

Kokusai Green is asking about $160-million for the team, but that does not include a debt estimated at more than $100-million. The biggest question facing Davidson, who has a history of turning financially-troubled companies into thriving ones, is determining whether the Lightning can be profitable.

"It's not any secret that some of the contracts that have been signed are fairly onerous," Wilson said. "Income streams have been compromised. We would have to determine if it would lose X amount of dollars if we did this and for how long. And how long it would take before this improved. We would want to get better players and we have to study the cost of that.

"We don't want to chase something if we can't see light at the end of the tunnel.

"Then there's the purchase price. Then you add in the factor that it would take X amount to bring the building up to where we can make this work. We feel it's a wonderful market and it would be exciting for us to give the franchise a fresh start."

Wilson called the Ice Palace "nice and comfortable" but said renovations to some areas, including the arena's concourses, would be considered should Davidson buy the Lightning.

While Davidson has the pockets deep enough to meet the Lightning's purchase price and take on its debt, Wilson said his boss is not rushing into a deal.

"The figures we've seen have made us take pause and that's where we are: Can you resuscitate this?" Wilson said. "Can you make this a franchise that everyone can be proud of? Or are you just going to keep pouring money in and not be able to turn it around? Can it be profitable?

"(The debt) has to be acknowledged. But I'm sure the (current owners) will try hard to do something soon. If they don't do something soon, they will lose another year."

Davidson's pursuit began four weeks ago. After talking with Wilson, Davidson contacted Bettman, a friend for nearly 20 years. Since Davidson's call to Bettman, Wilson and several members of the Palace Entertainment Group have toured the Ice Palace twice, including Wednesday.

Wilson said any offer to buy the Lightning would have to come in the next two months.

"It almost has to be done by June 1 because you would need to start a whole ticket campaign, rosters need to be examined and so on," Wilson said. "If you look at all those components and do some substantial improvements to the facility then something would have to be done very soon."

Bettman said that he is in "virtual daily contact" with the Lightning and that he would be delighted if Davidson made a bid. Bettman also added at least two other groups, including a group from Tampa that he refused to identify, are making inquiries about the team.

"But as far as the Davidson group goes, there's still a lot to do," Bettman said. "It's still very early in the process. People shouldn't get too excited too early. We would like to move as fast as we can and obviously we're going to be as helpful as we can in ensuring a deal that's satisfying to all parties is consummated."

Wayne, who represents the Lightning owners, said: "I have been very impressed with the representatives of the Pistons with whom we have met. They are unquestionably a professional organization, very professional up and down the line. And hopefully we will continue our discussions with them. . . . They certainly have as much wherewithal as anyone we've dealt with."

Davidson, 75, owns a minor-league hockey team (the Detroit Vipers of the IHL), a team in the Women's National Basketball Association (the Detroit Shock), the Pine Knob Music Theater in Michigan and Guardian Industries Corp., a global glass and automotive supply company. But his biggest and most profitable ventures are the Pistons, which he purchased in 1974, and the Palace of Auburn Hills, built by Davidson in 1988 and considered the model for modern sports stadiums.

Financial World magazine called the Pistons the second-most profitable franchise in the NBA and estimated their worth at $202-million.

"The next step is looking at some of the numbers they have given us, then sit down and try to determine if it can work," Wilson said. "If it can't work with us, it can't work with anyone. With our arena background and what we've done, that's what I believe.

"Hopefully, though, if we feel the numbers are right we can get something done."

William Davidson

Age: 75.

Home: Bloomfield Hills, Mich., a suburb of Detroit.

Net worth: An estimated $4-billion.

Background: Born and raised in Detroit, he graduated from the University of Michigan and then earned a law degree from Wayne State University. Davidson took over a struggling family business, Guardian Industries, and turned it around. He went on to buy the NBA Detroit Pistons and build the Palace of Auburn Hills sports arena outside Detroit.

Philanthropy: In the 1990s, he committed more than $80-million to projects that promote education, development of free-market economies, Jewish causes and quality of life in the Detroit area.

Personal: Davidson stays in shape by working out at the Pistons' facilities and is still involved in all his businesses' major decisions. He has two adult children, who are not involved in his businesses.

Holdings:

Privately held Guardian Industries, one of the largest global manufacturers of glass with operations in 15 countries and revenues of more than $2-billion.

Detroit Pistons, one of the most profitable franchises in sports.

Detroit Shock of the WNBA.

Detroit Vipers of the IHL, minor-league hockey team.

The Palace of Auburn Hills, a 21,000-seat basketball/hockey arena.

Pine Knob Music Theater in Clarkston, Mich.

Management of the Meadowbrook Music Festival in Rochester Hills, Mich.

Sources: Detroit News, Crain's Detroit Business, Financial World magazine, Times research

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