Friday, July 18, 1997 | 8:01 a.m.
It was a sure thing. Done deal. Cut and dry.
Now it might be delayed a year, or not happen at all.
Las Vegans Gavin and George Maloof were supposed to be the proud, new owners of the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning by now. Instead, the brothers merely are hopeful a deal can be put together before the 1997-98 season starts.
"Things are progressing. We're moving forward," said Gavin Maloof, who would oversee the team's operations. "We're optimistic something will happen."
The Maloof family owns the Fiesta hotel-casino but gained its wealth through its Albuquerque-based Coors distributorship. Late patriarch George Maloof Sr. owned the NBA's Houston Rockets from 1978-82.
Many times this decade the Maloofs have attempted to purchase another major sports franchise. A deal to re-acquire the Rockets in 1992 fell through, and their $120 million offer last summer to buy the San Antonio Spurs was rejected. Their bid last winter to place an NHL expansion team in Houston failed.
The Maloofs also considered buying the Texas Rangers and New Jersey Nets. They once owned 51 percent of the now-defunct Birmingham Fire of the World League of American Football.
But they finally appeared to have obtained their goal with the Lightning. The Maloofs were confident in their plans to purchase the team from a Japanese investment group that brought the expansion franchise to Tampa in 1992.
Media reports echoed the Maloofs' conviction and heralded the deal's certainty. Stories appearing in the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times stated the transaction would occur in early June ... then early July ... then by the end of July.
One local newspaper report claimed a deal was reached as far back as May.
"That was presumptuous," Gavin Maloof said. "That wasn't right. It was a reporter trying to make his own headlines. It was erroneous."
Adviser Tony Guanci has been representing the Maloofs in Tampa. He told the Tampa Tribune last week it will take another month or two before the transaction is finalized.
"For all of us in the family, it's like holding back a team of wild horses," Gavin Maloof said. "We wanted to get started yesterday, but we have to go through the process, listen to the attorneys and accountants for their guidance. Once we get the green light, we'll jump into it with both feet."
The main reason for the delay is the sheer magnitude of the project. The original sale package not only includes the Lightning, but also the Ice Palace and a 3.5-acre parcel of land adjacent to the arena.
Reports state the total price is close to $190 million, with the team and venue alone going for near $160 million. Guanci was in Tampa this month with a team of arena engineers to examine the Ice Palace.
"It's taking longer than we thought," Gavin Maloof said. "We didn't anticipate it being such a large deal. We're hopeful that it will go through. We're doing whatever we can to make the deal possible. We just want to make sure everything is in order."
The project's size isn't the only problem. The Maloofs now have competition in TransWorld Diversified, a Tampa-based holding company. Neither party, however, has submitted a formal offer.
"It's getting to the point where (an offer) is going to have to be made if anyone wants anything done before the start of next season," TransWorld spokesman Karl Nickel said. "It's getting down to the wire."