Start-ups or upstarts, he was there at the creation
Gary Davidson left the sports world so long ago that disco hadn’t even hit big yet, never mind personal computers, cellphones and iPods.
But, he says with a smile, that didn’t stop a group of agents from approaching the Orange County businessman a few years ago with the idea of forming a rival hockey league to challenge the lockout-languishing NHL.
“It sounded like it might be fun,” notes Davidson, 73.
Davidson ultimately turned down the opportunity, one of the few times the maverick chose not to upset the status quo with a rebel sports league.
As a younger man, Davidson once took on the NBA, the NHL and the NFL, leaving his mark as co-founder and president of the American Basketball Assn., co-founder of the World Hockey Assn. and founder of the World Football League during a dizzying seven-year stretch starting in 1967.
Or, as Sports Illustrated noted in a 1994 article proclaiming Davidson one of the 40 most influential sports figures of the previous 40 years, the UCLA graduate “made his way through only slightly fewer leagues than Jules Verne and turned out more acronyms than the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt.”
Davidson’s live-fast, die-young leagues are long gone, but four teams each from the ABA and WHA survived to join more established leagues, as did innovations such as three-point shots and goal posts at the back of the end zone.
Davidson, though, resisted a chance to launch an international hockey league during the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, just as he had passed on forming an upstart baseball league during the 1994 major league strike.
“We would have had franchises here and in Europe,” Davidson says of the proposed 12-team hockey league. “But I said, ‘You know, I’m in my 70s and I don’t really want to live on airplanes, trying to do this again.’ ”
The former sports pioneer is the president, chief executive and founder of a group of companies that provide healthcare services. His Costa Mesa office is stocked with memorabilia, including a red, white and blue ABA basketball and a mounted replica of the $1-million check that was used to lure Bobby Hull from the NHL.
“I liked sports; it was exciting,” says Davidson, a four-sport letterman at Garden Grove High and a tennis and UCLA basketball fan. “But I think it’s more of a young man’s play unless you make a fortune doing something else and you buy a franchise just to enjoy it as an owner. But to be a promoter and a hustler, you’ve got to be willing to stay on the red-eye and go all over the country.”
Of course, that’s what appealed to Davidson 40 years ago after he established himself as a tax and finance attorney in Orange County.
“I would have made a lot more money just staying in Orange County and building retirement communities,” he says, “but I was 33 years old and it was a high.”
It was later estimated that the economic impact of Davidson’s leagues was about $500 million, mostly in higher salaries paid to unburdened athletes and money spent to build or renovate stadiums to accommodate teams.
But by the mid-1970s, when the WFL was crashing and burning because of an ill-timed launch, Davidson’s life was a shambles too.
Scheduled to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated in April 1974, he was bumped when Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run right before deadline. On a more serious note, the father of four was headed for a divorce and was $4 million in debt. Also, the man once celebrated for his “Robert Redford good looks” needed 70 stitches to sew up facial cuts suffered in a car wreck and later a knifing in the parking lot of a Newport Beach restaurant.
Davidson abandoned plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 1976 and retreated from the public eye, at one point even contemplating a move to Mexico.
Now married nearly 20 years to his second wife, Kate, Davidson is happily grounded in Southern California, where he owns homes in Newport Beach and Indian Wells. His two sons, two daughters, two stepsons and 10 grandchildren all live nearby. Once an avid tennis player, he tried golf after undergoing hip-replacement surgery but found that “I actually like working better than playing golf.”
His biggest regret was not following through on an opportunity to secure a 10% stake in the San Antonio Spurs, who later merged into the NBA, as did the Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and Indiana Pacers. (The WHA teams joining the NHL were the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and New England Whalers.)
“I would have liked to have been smarter in how I did things,” Davidson says. “But I think I was blessed to have been in the right place at the right time. Very few people get an opportunity to be in professional sports or to be the founder of things. But whenever you take risks, there’s always the other side. . . .
“I went up very fast and I came down very fast.”