At the Pro Bowl in Arizona on Thursday afternoon, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees expressed his affinity for Gayle Benson, Tom's wife and the newly named future owner of the franchise.
"All I can say is I absolutely love Gayle," Brees said. "I think she's one of the sweetest people. I know she's one of our biggest fans. Her presence at practice with Tom all the time and the way she treats the wives and the players, she's first class."
Brees didn't comment on reported on talk that there's struggle within the Benson family. Brees said his relationship with the family has been good.
Tom Benson has decided that his wife Gayle will take control of his billion-dollar sports empire upon his death, possibly setting the stage for a fight over the Saints and Pelicans between Gayle and his granddaughter Rita Benson LeBlanc.
Benson’s announcement was unexpected, as his granddaughter had been seen as likely to succeed him in running New Orleans’ two professional sports teams.
Gayle Benson confirmed she is taking over the teams in a statement released in her name and her husband’s.
Benson LeBlanc could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening, so it was unclear whether she will fight for control of the teams.
As a result of Wednesday’s announcement, Benson LeBlanc no longer is associated with her grandfather’s sports operations.
Renee Benson, the adopted daughter of Tom Benson and his first wife, Shirley, also no longer is associated with the team. Neither is Ryan LeBlanc, Renee’s son and Rita’s brother.
The NFL and NBA have been informed of the succession plan.
Benson, 87, has been reported to be in declining health since a fall during the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta in May, during which New Orleans failed to secure the 2018 Super Bowl.
He purchased the Saints in 1985 and the Hornets, now the Pelicans, in 2012. The financial success of both franchises — particularly the Saints — has made Benson Louisiana’s wealthiest person and the state’s only billionaire.
The New Orleans-born Benson was a successful car dealer when he purchased the team, a move that ensured that the NFL would remain in New Orleans. With the help of the NFL, he brought the Saints back to a refurbished Superdome in 2006, just a year after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city and stripped the roof off the iconic stadium. In 2010, his team rewarded him with a historic Super Bowl victory.
Dennis Lauscha, president of both franchises, has been running day-to-day business operations for some time, along with Benson’s other business holdings. He is expected to continue in those roles, as will Mickey Loomis, executive vice president of both teams.
Gayle Benson and Rita Benson LeBlanc reportedly have been at odds for some time, though the reasons have never been made public.
Benson LeBlanc has often been her grandfather’s representative since joining the team in 2009, most notably as co-chairman of the NBA All-Star Game host committee last year.
However, in 2012, she was placed on unofficial paid administrative leave by her grandfather for several months.
In Wednesday’s statement, Tom Benson said that “my family, for the rest of their entire lives, will be taken care of.”
Gayle Benson is Tom Benson’s third wife. The two were married in 2004.
She has admitted to having little interest in sports before their marriage. But in recent years, she has become actively involved in the selling of the naming rights of the Superdome to Mercedes-Benz and of New Orleans Arena to Smoothie King, along with the rebranding of the Hornets as the Pelicans.
Now she will have more of a say in the affairs of both teams, although certainly Tom Benson will be in touch as well.
“Winning is a big part of his life,” Gayle Benson said in an interview in the summer when her husband was inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame. “But I think it’s because now he feels the passion the people have for the team.
“It’s really about those people. A lot will spend their last few dollars just to go to the games, and it means so much to him for them to get to see the team winning.”
At the same time, Benson conceded he had given thoughts to his mortality but he also finds himself in a good place.
“We’re very happy with life,” he said. “I have a great family, and I’ve been able to enjoy that.”
“The early years of my life were rough, but as I got older they calmed down a little bit. God has been very good to me.”
Mike Cranston, special to The Advocate, contributed to this report from Arizona.