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Lightning sale gets closer

A purchase group headed by Detroit Pistons owner William Davidson is trying to renegotiate several contracts the Lightning has with its vendors in what could be the final hurdle to buying the team and the Ice Palace.

The uncertainty of the negotiations with the vendors is expected to result in Davidson making a conditional offer to purchase the Lightning before the end of the week. The deal, however, will not be finalized unless the Lightning agrees to the offer and the Davidson group can reach terms with the vendors.

Pistons president Tom Wilson, who is spearheading Davidson's pursuit of the Lightning, said Monday he was "optimistic" new deals to create revenue streams could be established and "hopeful" an offer would be made and accepted.

"I would say no more than two weeks if we decide to go ahead," Wilson said. "I don't see how anyone interested in buying the team could wait any longer because there's a lot of things to be done, such as a ticket campaign and so on. So we would want to move quickly, but we would almost have to make it a conditional offer to give us a window to negotiate some things."

The main sticking point is not the price of the franchise, thought to be $130-million to $160-million. It is the money the Lightning owes to several vendors, mostly to Spectacor Management Group, the company that manages the Ice Palace; Sportservice, the Ice Palace's concessionaire, and the contracts associated with those vendors.

Officials with Sportservice and Spectacor could not be reached for commment.

In addition, the Lightning already has cashed in on future broadcasting and NHL royalty revenues, which it won't receive until July 1999.

"Some of the contracts are onerous, and we have to look at it like, "How can we make this work?' " Wilson said. "If we can add value to some of the partners already involved, maybe they'll give us a chance to make a living as well. We're working with a stacked deck as far as some of the arrangements are concerned, but with our reputation, I'm optimistic we can work a lot of this out."

Wilson has met with Tampa Mayor Dick Greco twice in the past two weeks _ two weeks ago at the Paint Your Heart Out Tampa event and last week at Greco's office _ to discuss plans for the city, specifically the undeveloped land around the Ice Palace.

"They really like the area and the arena, but of course, like any deal, it's going to come down to the bottom line," Greco said. "The numbers are going to have to work. I told them I'll do whatever I can to help."

In both meetings, Greco talked about Tampa's downtown area. He pitched the convention center hotel under construction and the waterfront as ways to draw events to the Ice Palace.

"We've had some good meetings with the mayor and learned what his vision of Tampa is and how to make it possible," Wilson said. "He's very enthused."

And Greco is enthused about Davidson's group.

"What's exciting is that this group knows how to run an arena," Greco said. "I don't know the numbers on how the Ice Palace is doing, but the fact that it's doing okay says something. The Japanese (ownership of the Lightning) have been friendly and have worked with us, but running an arena just isn't their thing. I hope the Japanese realize this as they work on a deal."

Wilson said negotiations with the owners are moving smoothly, but Davidson's group is doing as much talking with other groups as it is with the Lightning. Besides meeting with Greco, Wilson is talking with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and others that might hold events in the Ice Palace, such as the NCAA.

In addition, it is speculated Davidson's group already has a plan in place to run the Lightning. The plan would include delving into the free-agent market and firing general manager Phil Esposito and his staff, including director of scouting and player development Tony Esposito and perhaps coach Jacques Demers. Under such a plan, Rick Dudley, general manager of Davidson's minor-league Detroit Vipers, would replace Phil Esposito.

"Well, it's way too early to speculate on something like that. We're still trying to figure out if we can make this thing work and how we can make it work," Wilson said. "I just know we have some work to do on some of (the existing contracts). We're trying to spin them faster.

"If it happens, we can make it happen in a week or two, if not earlier. If, that is, we can make it happen."

_ Times staff writer Kyle Parks contributed to this report.