Sunday, June 06, 2004

Bill Davidson and his teams

Mr. Bill Davidson, the owner of international glass company Guardian Industries, could have three champions this year. He's the owner of the WNBA's defending champion Detroit Shock. The Tampa Bay Lightning, his NHL (hockey) franchise play Monday night for the Stanley Cup. His Detroit Pistons take on the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA (basketball) Finals.

Mr. Davidson is well known as a Jewish philantropist, donating millions of dollars to Israel institutions including the Technion University and the excavations next to the Western Wall. He is also the chief benefactor of the Jewish Theological Seminary's William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, where I recently received a Masters Degree. What follows is yesterday's New York Times piece on Mr. Davidson.

NEW YORK TIMES (June 5, 2004)
2 Teams, 2 Leagues, 2 Finalists: One Owner

TAMPA, Fla., June 4 — So which sport is Bill Davidson's favorite: hockey or basketball?

He owns the N.H.L.'s Tampa Bay Lightning, which is playing in the Stanley Cup finals against the Calgary Flames. He also owns the Detroit Pistons, who begin the N.B.A. finals against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night.

If Davidson had to choose a sport, which would it be?

"I don't want to answer that question," Davidson said as he sat in a luxury suite at the St. Pete Times Forum during Game 5 of the Lightning's game against Calgary on Thursday night. Casually dressed, he watched Calgary win, 3-2, in overtime, giving the Flames a 3-2 advantage in the four-of-seven-game series.

Game 6 is Saturday night in Calgary, and if the Lightning wins, the series returns to Tampa for Game 7 on Monday. Davidson, 81, also plans to attend the Pistons' opener against the Lakers on Sunday. He sat courtside during some Pistons games this spring at the Palace of Auburn Hills, with a television monitor at his feet to keep track of his hockey team.

"I try to work it out whatever way I can," Davidson said in a friendly but brief interview during the first intermission Thursday night.

Pistons Coach Larry Brown occasionally wore a Red Wings jersey before Calgary eliminated them from the playoffs, but he has switched to a Lightning jersey in honor of the man who signs his paychecks. During one of the intermissions Thursday night, Hooper, the Pistons' mascot, took a ride on the Zamboni as it resurfaced the ice. Hooper carried the N.B.A. Eastern Conference trophy and held a sign promoting the N.B.A. finals.

Davidson bought the Pistons 30 years ago, 25 years before he invested in the N.H.L. Like the Lightning, the Pistons were an underperforming franchise that Davidson and his staff built into an elite club.

The Pistons won N.B.A. titles in 1989 and '90. Davidson's group built the Palace, which opened in 1988. Its design was revolutionary at the time; it had luxury suites on three levels, an idea that intensified the gentrification of seating in sports stadiums. His management style with his teams is to delegate authority and interfere little.

Davidson, a graduate of the University of Michigan and Wayne State University law school, also owns the Detroit Shock, the defending W.N.B.A. champion. His company, Palace Sports and Entertainment, promotes concerts in Michigan and in Florida; Forbes magazine has estimated Davidson's net worth at $1.9 billion.

Although he is perceived in Detroit as primarily a basketball man, Davidson said he used to watch games at Olympia Stadium, accompanied by his uncle, when the Red Wings were a relatively new business.

"I started going even before Gordie Howe," he said. "I remember Gordie Howe's first game. I remember Ted Lindsay's first game. I grew up right in the heart of the city."

Davidson, who established himself in the glass business with Guardian Industries, is one of three N.H.L. owners who grew up in Detroit and bought franchises after success in other businesses. Mike Ilitch, who owns a pizza chain, bought the Red Wings in 1982, and Peter Karmanos built a computer business before buying the Carolina Hurricanes in 1994.

Davidson operates a 21,500-seat arena in the same market as Ilitch's Red Wings and used to own a minor league team that played there. Markets like Los Angeles and New York support more than one team, but does Davidson think Detroit can support two?

"I think so because of the geographics," Davidson said, alluding to the area's proximity to Canada. But he said he was unsure if it would ever happen in the region.

He was more specific about the mood surrounding the N.H.L.'s anticipated collective-bargaining crisis. There could be a lockout next season if there is no new deal with the N.H.L. Players Association. Davidson said he was not optimistic.

"I'm convinced there will be a lockout, and quite a lengthy one," he said.

Although Davidson said he was not sure if he would buy into the N.H.L. again, his top aides for the Lightning, Tom Wilson and Ron Campbell, have said that the team would not lose money this season if it reached the finals. The Lightning has had three sold-out home games. Palace Sports and Entertainment also owns the arena and uses it for concerts and other events.

In recent years, there has been speculation around the N.H.L. that Davidson would not mind selling the Lightning, but Wilson recently said: "We're not shopping it. We're enjoying it."

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