Thursday, March 1, 2012

Sommet Remains Black Eye For Predators

In 2007, Sommet Group, with its pastel green and blue stick-man logo, popped up seemingly out of nowhere to put its name on the downtown arena at a time when the Nashville Predators desperately needed sponsorship.

"What is a Sommet and how do you pronounce it?" was my initial thought. At the time, I had been living in Alabama for two years and figured that my knowledge of Nashville was beginning to fall behind the times, and that this "Sommet" was a major player in my hometown. As it turns out, people all over Middle Tennessee had the same questions.

Right around the time we all figured out how to say the name and began to surmise what they did (simply put, Sommet Group provided back-office support for small businesses‒—sometimes), the Predators sued Sommet in November 2009 for non-payment, and the Sommet name was abruptly removed from the arena in early 2010, a few months shy of the length of the term. Curiously, though, the Sommet name remained elsewhere in the arena, even on the dasherboards through the 2010 season.

A few months later, Sommet's offices in Cool Springs were raided by the FBI and the company was effectively shut down. The Predators turned around and whistled as if nothing had ever happened, washing its hands of the one-time partnership.

Today, we learned that the scumbag leaders of this company were indicted on Federal charges of fraud, theft, and money laundering. Among their alleged crimes: 
The Whitfields committed wire fraud, including stealing from an employee pension plan, to pay $254,535 toward their arena naming-rights obligations. 
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, their employees' pension plans paid for the naming rights of the arena.

Here's a brilliant idea... let's commit fraud and launder the money to make our name WIDELY known!

I mean, seriously... the writing was on the wall. A small B2B company with a tiny leased office in Cool Springs suddenly has the money to plaster its name across a major sports arena. Did no one with the Predators analyze this? Or did they just not care?

Sommet's name remained on the boards
even after Bridgestone had taken over
the arena naming rights.
Photo: self-taken, March 23, 2010
The deal was inked in May 2007, on just a three-year term. Three years is breathtakingly small for a major naming rights agreement, but the thought that the Predators would even be in the arena in 2010 was, frankly, a pipedream. The team was all but gone at that point. Whether Boots Del Biaggio was moving it to Kansas City or Jim Balsillie was taking our talents to Hamilton, the team simply wouldn't be in Nashville after the 2007-08 season. Everybody knew it. Craig Leipold certainly knew he wouldn't be around much longer. (He announced a week later he was selling the team to Balsillie.) Taking Sommet's money was a quick-fix cash-grab. It was a band-aid. The risk was worth taking, because the ones who made the deal wouldn't even be around to see it through.

We all know the rest of the story: how Boots is in jail, how Balsillie has lost control of his company, how the Preds were saved by local businessmen, how Bridgestone became our new favorite tire, and how <ahem> golden the Predators have become, both on and off the ice... but every time this Sommet story rears its ugly head, one cannot help but think of the arena downtown‒—and by proxy, the Predators‒—and how sad and sordid the Sommet affair really was.

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