"Gary Davidson," this magazine opined in 1975, "has been one of the most influential figures in the history of professional sport." Two years later an editorial in The Sporting News asked, "What man, more than any other, has had the greatest impact on professional sports in America? You'd have to say Gary Davidson...." These pronouncements raise a provocative question for today's reader, specifically this: Who in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks is Gary Davidson?
The answer: Gary Davidson was a cofounder and the first president of both the American Basketball Association and the World Hockey Association; he also founded—and served as the first commissioner and president of—the World Football League. In the late 1960s and '70s he presided over a parallel sports universe, creating options for athletes in the established leagues that wouldn't otherwise have existed in the days before tree agency.
An attorney himself, Davidson and a team of lawyers challenged in court the reserve clauses in pro football and hockey. His "rebel leagues," as they came to be known, triggered acrimonious salary wars with the NFL, the NHL and the NBA; during the short, furious life of the ABA, the NBA's average player salary quadrupled to $109,000. "I was probably responsible for more benefits to the players than Pete Rozelle or any other commissioner," says Davidson, now a real estate developer in Southern California. "But I don't think that will come up much anymore."
No, if remembered at all, his leagues are usually recalled as comical and garish, best symbolized by the tricolored Neapolitan basketballs of the ABA. But Davidson's leagues have contributed so much more of consequence. They attracted the vast talents of Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Hull, Rick Barry and Julius Erving. The NFL has goalposts in the back of the end zone because the WFL did it first. The NBA has the three-point shot because the ABA pioneered the trey.
September 18, 1994
But most important, Davidson placed franchises in cities that were not previously considered "major league," places such as Winnipeg and San Antonio, Edmonton and Indianapolis. "Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham are viewed as being extremely important in the evolution of modern professional sports," says Max Muhleman, a former vice president of the World Football League. "What they did was induce other owners to view the sporting landscape in much larger terms. I can see a lot of that in what Gary Davidson did." Says Tim Grandi, the former associate general counsel for the WFL: "Whether Gary intended it or not, players acquired new freedoms and prosperity that didn't previously exist. He wasn't Moses, but he did take control of professional sports away from a clique of owners and opened it up to more people and cities."
All of which came at great personal cost to Davidson. In 1974, the first and last full season of the WFL—the last of Davidson's rebel leagues, which hemorrhaged $20 million in its first 20 weeks of play—Davidson suddenly found himself bankrupt and adrift. He and his wife also started divorce proceedings in '74, a year he sums up laconically: "I turned 40," he says. "I ended up upside-down about $4 million. And that did not make for a good year."
He is now 60, happily remarried, and happier still to be out of the cutthroat racket of professional sports; he credits his ex-wife for helping him discover God. His world now is very different from what it used to be. Davidson once wrote in his autobiography, published just before the collapse of his empire: "It's winning, almost any way you can, that means the most. It's going into the jungle and surviving."
While his priorities today are less Machiavellian, Davidson had only to turn on his television set recently to see that he might have won after all. The upstart Indiana Pacers, a former ABA club, were the story of the NBA playoffs. The New York Rangers, a team emboldened by erstwhile players from the Edmonton (originally Alberta) Oilers—a charter member of the WHA—are the Stanley Cup champions. The rebel-league legacy is alive in the Canadian Football League, which has crossed the border and put teams in Baltimore, Las Vegas, Sacramento and Shreveport. Gary Davidson left the jungle of professional sports 20 years ago, but he is survived by the ideas he planted there.