tampabay.com

It was fun (mostly) while it lasted

As the Bill Davidson era comes to an end, there is little to complain about when it comes to his management style.

By TOM JONES, Times Staff Writer
Published August 8, 2007


We say so long to Bill Davidson, who sold the Lightning on Tuesday. Here's our look back.

Five things we liked about Bill Davidson

He kept the team in Tampa

Anytime a new owner takes over, there's a possibility of a move. Some even speculated the Detroit area could handle two teams, especially if one played in the swanky Palace of Auburn Hills, home of Davidson's Pistons. Sure, Davidson never moved to where his hockey team played, but he never moved the hockey team to where he lived.

He brought us a Stanley Cup

When he bought the team in 1999, the Lightning was truly the sorriest franchise in all of sports. Five years later, it won hockey's holy grail. Maybe Davidson didn't hire Jay Feaster as GM or John Tortorella as coach. He didn't draft any players. He didn't make any trades. But he was in charge of the whole shebang. Got to give him credit for that.

He left the team in better shape than he found it

The Lightning has made the playoffs four straight seasons and remains playoff contenders, maybe even Cup contenders with a little tweaking. The nucleus of Vinny Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Marty St. Louis are under contract, and there's no reason why this team shouldn't remain strong for years to come.

He stayed out of the way

Many complained he never embraced the team. In fact, he rarely attended games. But he also didn't meddle. He hired smart hockey people then let those people make all the hockey decisions. He simply signed the checks. In some worlds, that is the definition of the perfect sports owner.

He sold the team to good owners

Well, it has been only a day since he actually sold the team, but this group appears to be serious and responsible and cares about hockey. It's no secret Davidson has wanted to sell the team, maybe even for years. But he didn't take the first offer that came down the pike. Certainly, he waited for the right price, but he also waited for the right owners.

Five things we didn't like about Bill Davidson

He didn't seem to care enough

Fans love owners who are passionate. When they hurt, they want the owner to hurt, too. When they are angry, they want the owner to yell at someone. In other words, fans love owners such as Mark Cuban. Davidson sometimes was more like a Cuban sandwich. No emotion. No involvement. No passion.

He complained too much about money

Well, it wasn't necessarily Davidson, but his people spent endless hours complaining about parking revenue, rising salaries and this tax and that tax. Quite frankly, fans who supported the team extremely well through the years grew tired of listening to ownership whine about how much money it was losing.

He did not develop anything around the St. Pete Times Forum

Part of this whole ownership deal was buying the property around the arena and turning it into a downtown hot spot. But the only thing that grew around it was weeds. It's hard to totally blame Davidson. His two point men on the real estate end of Palace Sports & Entertainment died not long after Davidson bought the team. Still, we remain years from the original vision.

Relied on the fans to lead

This is nitpicking, and you have to go back a ways. But when the team floundered during the first couple of years under Davidson (the Rick Dudley/Steve Ludzik regime), ownership seemed hesitant to increase payroll until fans showed their support. We always believed (please take note, Stuart Sternberg) that if you put money into the team and improve the product, the fans will come. It's ownership's responsibility to lead the team, not the fans'.

To be honest, it's hard to come up with five things we didn't like about Davidson. All in all, we liked him. He turned out to be a pretty good owner. He bought a bad team. Made it a good team. Won a championship. Then sold the team while it was still in the upper half of the NHL.

Rating the Tampa Bay owners

So where does Bill Davidson rank among Tampa Bay sports owners? Pretty high. Then again, it doesn't take much to earn high marks on this list. Yeesh, we've had some bad owners.

1. Glazers, Bucs

There are plenty of things not to like about the Glazers. Topping that list is firing Tony Dungy as coach. And they kind of bungled how they handled it and how they replaced him. But here's the bottom line: They spearheaded the building of one of the best stadiums in the NFL and, what matters most, they won a Super Bowl. Can't beat that.

2. Bill Davidson, Lightning

Davidson and Palace Sports & Entertainment did basically what the Glazers did. He took over a sorry franchise and made it a champion. The Lightning has to be considered one of the NHL's model franchises, and that's admirable.

3. Art Williams, Lightning

Art was a bit of a clown. He said stupid things. He did stupid things. But give him his due. He bought a team no one else wanted, cleared a good chunk of its debt and made it a franchise someone might want. That someone was Bill Davidson. If not for Art, Davidson never would have purchased the team. And, we're willing to bet, would never have won a Stanley Cup.

4. Stuart Sternberg, Devil Rays

We're not sure why we're putting Sternberg this high. Really, the Rays don't seem all that better now than a year ago. Or two years ago. Or five years ago. Sometimes, we get the sickening feeling this franchise is actually taking steps backward. But Sternberg seems like a bright guy. He seems like he wants to do the right things. So maybe it's all wishful thinking. Or maybe he just looks great compared with the previous guy.

5. Hugh Culverhouse, Bucs

Culverhouse's penny-pinching ways have become the stuff of legend. He did do one good thing: He helped Tampa Bay get an NFL franchise. And the Bucs did come within a victory of the Super Bowl in just their fourth season. But after that, it was a train wreck. He couldn't woo Bill Parcells to the alter. He couldn't sign Bo Jackson. And he couldn't stop the team from becoming the biggest laughingstock in the NFL.

6. Japanese, Lightning

Supposedly the Lightning's first owner was a guy named Takaski Okubo. Quite frankly, we're not 100 percent sure the guy ever existed. Seriously, for all we know, those photos of Okubo meeting commissioner Gary Bettman might have been an actor. As far as anyone knows, Okubo never attended a game nor set foot in Florida, let alone Tampa, let alone Expo Hall, Thunderdome or then-Ice Palace. The only thing this ownership did was bail founder Phil Esposito out of a jam by bankrolling the team. But Espo is such a smooth operator, we're willing to bet someone would've given him the dough.

7. Vince Naimoli, Devil Rays

Poor Vince. It's easy to pick on him, and it probably wasn't all his fault the Devil Rays have become the exact opposite of how to build a successful franchise. Then again, when you bully, intimidate and generally treat people like jerks, you're not going to get any sympathy from us. Maybe if he were a little nicer, it would have been easier to overlook how incredibly incompetent he was.