Benson: Wife To Inherit Control Of Saints, Pelicans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Tom Benson, who owns the NFL's Saints and NBA's Pelicans, has agreed to a succession plan that will give his wife, Gayle, control of New Orleans' major professional sports franchises after his death.

         In a statement provided to The Associated Press on Wednesday night, the 87-year-old Benson says his decision is meant to ensure the clubs' "long-term stability and success," and is about "the legacy of these two teams and everything we have done for the good of the city of New Orleans and our region."

         The move, first reported by Times-Picayune, is a departure from previous plans to bequeath a controlling interest in the clubs to Benson's daughter, Renee Benson, and her children, Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc. The three had been listed as part owners and members of the football club's board of directors in the Saints' 2014 media guide. Rita Benson LeBlanc also was listed as vice chairman of the board for the Saints and for several years had served as one of the more prominent public faces of the franchise during on-field ceremonies during games or at community events.

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         On Wednesday, the names of Renee Benson, Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc all had been removed from the staff directory on the Saints' website, which now lists only Tom and Gayle Benson as owners.

         A person within the Saints organization who is familiar with the situation said Rita Benson LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc no longer have offices at Saints headquarters and that the club had re-possessed a team-issued Mercedes-Benz from Rita Benson LeBlanc. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the club has not made those details public.

         Benson has owned the Saints since 1985 and the Pelicans since 2012. He married Gayle Benson in the fall of 2004. His previous wife, Grace, died in 2003.

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         All of the Saints' playoff seasons — including their only Super Bowl title after the 2009 season — have come since Benson bought the club and kept it in Louisiana at a time when many feared other prospective buyers would move the team.

         Likewise, the Pelicans' stay in New Orleans appeared tenuous when the NBA stepped in to buy the club from former owner George Shinn and spent more than a year trying to find an owner who would agree to purchase the club and keep it in Louisiana.

         Benson, who initially showed little interest in buying the NBA team, ultimately decided in the spring of 2012 that he could give the NBA team its best chance for long-term stability in small-market New Orleans by buying the franchise and merging some of its business and marketing operations with his wildly popular football club.

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         Benson agreed to pay $338 million for the basketball club — then called the Hornets — and entered into a long-term lease at the club's arena — now called Smoothie King Center— next to the Superdome.

         Before the 2013-14 NBA season, Benson changed the franchise's name to the Pelicans.

         This season, Charlotte took back the name Hornets, and all Pelicans franchise records which predated the original Hornets' move to New Orleans in 2002 also were returned to Charlotte.

         Benson's new will calls for the Saints and Pelicans to be placed into a trust, with Gayle as executor.

         The move also is expected to stabilize a current management structure that includes Dennis Lauscha as president of both clubs and Mickey Loomis as the executive vice president of the two teams, as well as Saints general manager.

         Benson currently remains actively involved in the business of his franchises but has struggled with his health increasingly in the past year.

         Once known for dancing the "Benson Boogie" on the sideline after Saints victories, he now often needs help getting around, the result of recent knee surgeries.

         He also was hospitalized a couple times last summer in West Virginia, where the Saints held training camp. Team officials said then that Benson apparently was struggling with change in altitude from New Orleans, which is at sea level, to the mountains surrounding the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs.

         – by AP Reporter Brett Martel


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