The Complete World Hockey Association

The League Maker: He Weds Excess Money to Surplus Talent • by Leonard Koppett • The New York Times • November 11, 1973

How does a 39-year-old corporation lawyer, the father of four children aged 3 to 11, who still plays basketball competitively in an industrial league and lots of tennis on weekends emerge suddenly as the greatest organizer of professional sports leagues America has produced?

"Partly by accident," says Gary L. Davidson, "and partly because I have a logical turn of mind. A trial lawyer has to ideal with psychology and people's emotional responses. But in setting up a business, it's more a matter of figuring out how to go from A to B to C to D in logical steps, and I feel at home doing that."

Casually dressed and comfortably installed in a brand new office in a strikingly designed wood and glass building, Davidson is only a couple of blocks from the Orange County Airport. He is the image of the rising young executive so often associated with this huge southern suburb of Los Angeles.

But he was the first president of the American Basketball Association, and cofounder and president of the World Hockey Association. The A.B.A., formed in 1967, is going strong. The W.H.A., in its first season last year, challenged the National Hockey League even more successfully than the A.B.A. did the National Basketball Association in its first year.

Don't Underestimate Him

So when Davidson talks of his latest project, the World Football League, which intends to make room for itself alongside the National Football League and to begin play next July, any tendency to shrug him aside is tempered by his record.

In American sports history, every major league had some key administrative leader in its early stages, but no one person was the prime mover in more than one league until Davidson, who is now trying to make it three for three.

His concept is simple.

"There are a lot of people around with plenty of money, who want to get involved in sports," he says. "There are also more capable athletes than the older leagues could ever absorb, and more cities with stadiums or arenas than are being used. My job is to bring these things together, line up financing, block out how things should work, get it all organized."

Simple as a concept, it's a tricky and complex operation to bring into reality, and that's where Davidson has excelled. Thinking up new leagues is easy. Gathering the people and resources to make them work is something else.

Davidson knows where to look and how to make a convincing presentation.

"Many men who have made a lot of money are now thinking about how to enjoy it," he elaborated. "A lot of basic attitudes have changed. They used to worry about how to leave millions for their grandchildren. Now they see the kids with long hair, in a whole new lifestyle, and they wonder what it's all about. Besides, once their families are provided for beyond a certain point, with taxes the way they are, there's more disposition to have fun with the money yourself.

"Those who are interested in sports can get a lot of satisfaction from owning a team. You can call it ego satisfaction, but I think it's unfair to give that term the negative meaning it often gets. It's a legitimate outlet for pride, excitement and recognition."

But there's more than fun, says this logical thinker who delves into psychology.

"It's also a very exclusive club, owning a major league team, and not everyone can get in. Any man who has been successful has a competitive urge — now there's a broad generality for you that welcomes a new challenge beyond what he's already mastered.

"It used to be that the only way you could get into the sports business was to be really very, very rich, or to be an out-and-out-full-time promoter with nothing to lose.

"But there are in-between people, too — people who have made a lot of money, but not so much that they can invest millions right off the bat, or lose millions indefinitely. They can't go for an established franchise that's going to cost $10-million to $20-million.

"The new leagues give these people a chance to come in. It's like investing in a mine or an oil well. You know it's a roll of dice, You come in with your eyes open. Those who can't afford to lose a million or so at first, shouldn't go in. But the ones who can afford it can come in on the ground floor and challenge a kind of establishment, and make a great deal of money if they succeed."

Davidson is the one who blocks it all out on paper, finds the buyers, spells out what it will cost and what they might make, helps line up support in individual cities and so forth. At first, a franchise can be sold for as little as $25,000. As actual operation comes closer, it may be bought (or sold) for $250,000. The new teams coming into the W.H.A. will be paying $2-million.

What do founders like Davidson get out of it? They can keep one of the original franchises, to operate it or sell it anywhere along the line. The profit is considerable because there seem to be plenty of buyers at every stage. They can also take finders' fees and other standard business commissions.

So far, everyone has benefited except the established leagues, whose monopolies have been broken, and even they don't seem to be wounded seriously. But hundreds of new jobs have been created, players have seen their salaries quadruple, arenas have new tenants and a dozen cities have rooting interests that they didn't have before.

Davidson got into the A.B.A. in a casual manner. The idea for the league was being promoted by Constantine Seredin, a New York public-relations man. Davidson was one of those approached, through a friend of a friend, as a potential franchise owner.

Up to that point — late 1966 — Davidson had never been in the sports business, although he was a knowledgeable fan. His family went to Orange County from Montana when he was 6 years old, and he has lived there ever since. He got out of high school in 1953, tried Redlands (a small college) and didn't like it, spent a semester at Long Beach City College ("it was like a continuation of high school, not very competitive") and finally found what he wanted at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He stayed at U.C.L.A. through college and law school, and went into practice specializing in corporation and tax matters.

The A.B.A. idea sounded promising.

"How about a franchise in this area?" he asked.

No, he was told, that was taken.

After some investigating, he found a group that took the Dallas franchise. At the preliminary meeting in January, 1967, at New York, there was no real organization.

"So I went to the library," he recalls, "looked up the way to form a Delaware nonprofit organization, and we set up the A.B.A. that way the same day."

He was elected president. Within a year, he had sold his interest (for about 10 times the investment) and resigned. He never did see eye to eye with George Mikan, the A.B.A.'s first commissioner, but he appreciated the importance of Mikan's identity to the new league's early acceptance.

The main effect of the new league was, of course, the competition for players. The N.B.A. pros, just feeling their collective strength in a player's association, welcomed the alternative. The college stars, object of competitive bidding, were delighted. Salaries soared to unheard-of levels in both leagues. But one of Davidson's basic assumptions was proved true: the supply of talent was abundant.

The W.H.A., which Davidson organized with Dennis Murphy (who had been with the Miami A.B.A. franchise), simply applied the same idea to hockey.

"But I'd learned a lot in the A.B.A.," said Davidson, "and I think we did it better."

On the wall of his office hangs a foot-wide enlargement of the slip of paper that made the W.H.A. believable: a check made out to Bobby Hull for $1-million. Now Joe Namath's attorney acknowledges having contacted Davidson about his client's availability for the W.F.L.

Having resigned from the W.H.A. (whose office is still combined with his), Davidson is putting together his football idea, His league would be based in American cities, but includes franchises (staffed by Americans) in London, Tokyo, Mexico City and other foreign cities with large American populations. It would play on Wednesday or Thursday nights, with a 20-game schedule (no exhibitions) starting in July. Davidson is sure he can start with at least eight teams.

The fact that the National Football League players are facing a possible strike next summer in a sticky labor negotiation may help him. The fact that the home games are no longer blacked out may hurt.

But his five co-organizers have been over the route before. Bob Schmerz is an owner of the N.B.A. Boston Celtics and the W.H.A. New England Whalers; Nick Mileti is an owner of the Cleveland Indians (baseball), Cavaliers (N.B.A.) and Crusaders (W.H.A.), and a new arena under construction; Ben Hatskin owns the Winnipeg Jets (Hull's team) in the W.H.A.; John Bassett is an officer of the Toronto Toros (W.H.A.) and Argonauts (Canadian Football League) and the Toronto World Team Tennis franchise, and Steve Arnold, of Pro Sports, Inc., is a business - management consultant for athletes, sports firms and leagues.

They are sure they can get this league off the ground. Davidson's form chart says they can.

Football League Not Aware Of Sinatra-Agnew Interest

Are Frank Sinatra and Spiro Agnew really shopping for a franchise in the World Football League, as was reported from Chicago recently?

"I can't speak for them that they are not," says Gary Davidson, the organizer of the new circuit, "but I have no specific information that they are. Evidently, they hinted at it to the press when they were in Chicago, but there's nothing actually in the works that I'm aware of."

Since the principals did not see fit to deny the rumor, officials of the new league did not feel compelled to take extreme measures to squelch a story that generated so much publicity.

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