Benson family power struggle laid bare in lawsuit over Saints owner’s mental competence _lowres

New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson walks with his wife Gayle Benson, left, and granddaughter Rita LeBlanc before an NFL football game against the Washington Redskins at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Bill Haber) ORG XMIT: NYOTK

The lawsuits are flying, the attorneys are massing on the border and people are choosing sides for what promises to be The Battle of New Orleans II, an uncivil war between Bensons and LeBlancs for control of Louisiana’s major professional sports empire.

In the middle, like children caught in the eye of a rancorous divorce, are the Saints and Pelicans.

The question over whether Rita LeBlanc, her brother, Ryan LeBlanc, and their mother, Renee Benson, would put up a fight for the franchises was answered Thursday. In a move about as predictable as beads being thrown at Mardi Gras they filed suit in civil court, claiming that Tom Benson was no longer qualified to make the decision he revealed Wednesday that his wife, Gayle, would take over the franchises upon his death, excommunicating Rita, Ryan and Renee completely.

Perhaps a hefty monetary settlement could have been reached — something smaller than the national debt but bigger than this year’s state budget cuts to higher education — but that’s not happening. At least now.

According to Forbes Magazine, the franchises are worth a combined $1.76 billion — $1.11 billion for the Saints, $650 million for the Pelicans. Considering that Benson bought the Pelicans from the NBA for the comparative fire sale price of $338 million just three years ago shows why the two sides are going to court. These are two of the most valuable businesses in Louisiana, and at this rate it won’t be long before their collective worth is bumping up against the $2 billion mark.

That’s much better than owning oil wells. And it makes fracking the Benson family worth the risk from a macro business perspective.

Saints and Pelicans fans will likely be titillated by the long-term legal wrangling between rich people trying to stay richer — at least for a while.

“There are people who want to see the wreck on the freeway,” said David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at USC (wonder if he knows Ed Orgeron?). “You can be backed up for miles, but when they get there they want to take a quick look. But eventually they will want to get back to whether their teams can get to the playoffs.”

The combined net worth of the two franchises isn’t guaranteed to continue paying dividends. Not if the epic tug of war over the Saints and Pelicans stretches on for months or years in the courts.

Speaking from the Saints’ perspective, ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt said he believes the team can continue to operate normally despite all the in-court conflict.

But there could come a time, especially if the 87-year-old Benson dies, that matters crucial to fielding a competitive team could bog down.

“People like (Saints general manager and Pelicans exec) Mickey Loomis are vested with the authority of signing players and dealing with coaches and team operations,” Brandt said. “But in practical matters, it’s hard to know whether there will be a situation here or there where they will need sign-offs, authority from the highest level. A decision Mickey can’t make.

“That’s what you wonder about. Will something be held up? Will someone’s free agency get held up to the point they move on to another team?”

Given the Saints’ salary cap-strapped current state of affairs — salary cap hell is the way NFL.com described it — that might not be something the Saints realistically need to worry about, Brandt said.

The NFL taking a dim view of the dustup over ownership is something to worry about. Brandt sees little chance of a Donald Sterling-like takeover of the franchise by the NFL. The Benson’s battle may be upsetting to The League, but not that kind of embarrassing. Not BountyGate embarrassing. DeflateGate is a much, much bigger public relations headache than the Saints at the moment.

But keep in mind, 24 of the NFL’s 32 owners have to approve Benson’s change in the franchise’s succession plans.

“From a league perspective they want solid, stable ownership,” Brandt said. “They don’t want any disturbance.”

Brandt offered an interesting sidelight to this saga, adding that in his 10 years of going to NFL meetings while working for the Green Bay Packers, he never saw any issues between Benson and LeBlanc, who until Wednesday seemed to be groomed to take over the franchises some day. Brandt’s time with the Packers overlaps the time Benson claims that Rita, Ryan and Renee became “offensive” after his marriage to Gayle in 2004.

“It seemed like a close, respectful relationship,” Brandt said.

Carter said there is — or should be — one bit of common ground for the warring Benson factions.

“If you take the big picture approach, besides the fact they’re fighting, you’d think the goal is the same: to grow the economic value of the teams,” Carter said. “You’d think they wouldn’t become so sideways with each other that they would damage the value of the franchises.

“Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.”

Hopefully. But right now, there don’t appear to be any of those involved.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.