"What man, more than any other, has had the greatest impact on professional sports in America?" asked an editorial in The Sporting News in 1977. "You'd have to say Gary Davidson...." In the months that passed between those two pronouncements, sports were undergoing a Davidsonic boom—and yet the name Gary Davidson, to hear it now, has little resonance for Joe Fan.
He was a Ted Turner who colorized the games even as he terrorized the existing salary structures. He and a team of fellow attorneys unshackled athletes from their restrictive contracts in the established National leagues: the NHL, the NFL and the NBA, the last a league whose average player salary quadrupled, to $109,000, during the ABA's nine-year life span. In the Davidson lexicon, those leagues and the three TV networks made up the professional sports Establishment. "Never met Roone," Davidson says, "because I was never part of the Establishment."
Of course, Davidson also helped professional sport to establish itself, to realize its manifest destiny in North America. He spread franchises like fertilizer to all corners of the continent as he scattered his sales pitches (like fertilizer) to prospective owners in San Antonio and Winnipeg and Indianapolis, cities that became major league the instant a local millionaire industrialist said yes to Davidson's alluring offer of sporting eminence.
This is the primary legacy of Davidson's leagues. "A lot of new cities that had never had teams proved they could carry teams," says Tim Grandi, the former associate general counsel for the WFL. 'And certainly, 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 more cities."
"Walter O'Malley and Horace Stoneham are viewed as being extremely important in the evolution of modern pro sports," says Max Muhleman, a former vice president of the WFL. "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."
"I was probably responsible for more benefits to the players, than Pete Rozelle or any other commissioner," Davidson says quietly today, "but I don't think that that will come up much anymore."
It won't come up because Davidson has been forgotten. His was a colorful streak across the 1970s sky, but one that ultimately fell short, like Evel Knievel at the Snake River Canyon. And yet his improbable story is worth reviving: Raised by a divorced mother, he worked his way through his first year of UCLA Law by picking up freshly murdered corpses at the coroner's office while on the night shift of an L.A. mortuary. Not many years alter graduation, having established himself as a tax and finance attorney in Orange County, Davidson got in on the ground floor of something called the American Basketball Association. Once again, and for many years to come, Gary Davidson would be working with stiffs.
"In the 1950s," Davidson notes in his autobiography, "men who had been unable to obtain major league franchises formed the Continental League. It never got off the ground, but the threat of it forced expansion which brought some of the Continental League members into baseball's major leagues."
Spectator sports never much interested Davidson. Professional leagues captured his imagination only when he realized they could be used as a Hofheinzian financial lever. Only then did he find 50 ways to love his lever.
As the Continental League gave us the New York Mets and the Houston Astros, so are Davidson's rebel leagues responsible for the Edmonton Oilers and the Denver Nuggets and the Hartford Whalers and the Indiana Pacers and the Quebec Nordiques and the San Antonio Spurs and the Winnipeg Jets and the New Jersey Nets; for three-point shots and goalposts in the back of the end zone; for Julius Erving and Wayne Gretzky.