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Boston Bruins owner says hockey takes hard hit from economy

BOSTON - Corporate sponsorship of sports teams is "under attack" during the current economic crisis, but no NHL teams are in danger of folding, Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs said Friday.

"Look at the financial organizations that have participated that don't exist anymore," he said. "The Wachovia Center will not be the Wachovia Center and that permeates the whole world of sports."

The Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers play in that building named for the struggling bank that Wells Fargo and Citigroup are in competition to purchase. The Bruins' current home, TD Banknorth Garden, had been called the FleetCenter before Fleet Bank was bought by Bank of America.

Jacobs, chairman of the NHL board of governors, said New York would be hit hardest by a decline in corporate sponsorship.

"They've got three new stadiums going up and I think they're going to be absent a lot of participants that they were depending on or looking forward to," Jacobs said. "Boston has been a little bit less affected than other parts of the world. Canada, for the sake of the sport of hockey, is doing very well."

On Friday, Congress approved a US$700 billion government bailout of the financial industry and U.S. President Bush signed it.

Some NHL teams are having problems, Jacobs said at the Bruins annual pre-season media day, but he expects all 30 teams to survive.

"I think if anybody gets in trouble, there's so many geographical areas that would like to have hockey," he said. "We don't have any really sick teams at this point, but I think we're always (aware) of the fact that certain areas are weaker than others. The Sun Belt hasn't responded yet.

"Tampa's sold out. Carolina seems to be doing well. Nashville isn't drawing like it should. Minnesota's sold out. It's hard to say what drives it."

Jacobs, starting his 34th season as owner of the Bruins, said he plans to keep the team. If he does, he said, he could not buy the Buffalo Bills because the NFL forbids ownership by the same person of teams in different sports in different markets. The Bills are not expected to be put up for sale while owner Ralph Wilson, 90, is alive.

Jacobs is chairman and chief executive officer of Buffalo-based Delaware North Cos., a hospitality and food service business.

"I've always been interested in buying the Bills but I'm prevented by the National Football League, thank God, from owning two franchises," Jacobs said. "I kind of like the Bruins a whole lot more than I like anybody else.

"The Bruins aren't for sale and aren't going to be sold."

Buying teams at a time of extremely tight credit is very difficult, said Charlie Jacobs, son of the owner and executive vice president of the Bruins.

"I have friends of mine with very good credit who are having a hard time getting loans today," he said. "I think the same can be true if you talk about a sports franchise. We were talking about the purchase and sale of the Bills that was alluded to today. It's going to be hard for somebody to go out and borrow significant capital and do that."

Ticket sales haven't been hurt by the nation's financial problems, he said, but he expects the crisis to be felt by the Bruins in other ways. Sponsors may take out fewer ads and, with fewer banks remaining, selling luxury suites may become more difficult, he said.

For this season, corporate sponsorships are locked in so the bigger effect may not be seen until 2009-2010.

"It's probably too early to trickle down and reflect in our corporate sales departments," Charlie Jacobs said, "but I do think it's coming. ... I've had some conversations even with clients who have said 'we might be pulling back our ad budget for the next year but we're committed to you this year.' "

Cam Neely has seen the sport from two sides - as an all-star right wing with the Bruins and now as a team vice president.

"As a player, you just put on your equipment and go out and play and you know your paycheque's coming and you don't really think about it too much," he said, "but on this side, it certainly is a factor that when people are being affected by the economy, they turn off the ancillary activities. So we just have to ride out the storm."

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