Start-ups or upstarts, Gary Davidson was there at creation
WHA founder 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
"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
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
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
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
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."