Folks didn’t know much about Tom Benson when he emerged unexpectedly as the buyer of the New Orleans Saints in 1985.
The team was woeful under the ownership of John Mecom, having never had a winning season in two decades of NFL competition.
There were even questions about whether New Orleans, which had not thrived with the rest of the Sun Belt and was suffering through a deep recession, was even big enough or rich enough to warrant an NFL team.
We all know the rest of the story: The team won. The fans responded. The threat that the Saints would leave New Orleans, looming always like a hurricane in the Gulf, seemed to slowly abate.
Benson doubled down on his New Orleans-based sports empire by purchasing the Pelicans in 2012.
Tom Benson died in 2018 and left the teams in the care of his widow, Gayle. But New Orleanians, always nervous about the future of sports in the Crescent City, wondered what would happen to the team after Gayle, who is 74 and has no heirs.
Now we know the answer.
The teams will be sold in a manner that aims to keep them in New Orleans. The key is a deal being negotiated between the teams and the state that will extend the current Superdome lease, which expires in 2025.
Extending the lease is key, because the NFL bars a team from relocating to another market if the move would breach an existing lease, unless “the club and its landlord agree to terminate the lease or if there is a final court order terminating the lease or concluding that the lease does not preclude a relocation.”
The good news is that the talks between Gayle Benson and the state are going well, and the state is investing nearly half a billion dollars in upgrades to the Superdome, which is now one of the NFL’s oldest venues.
But there is more to celebrate.
The proceeds from the sale — billions of dollars — will be given away through charities to benefit the people of New Orleans.
"I can’t take it with me," Gayle Benson said. "God gives us gifts, and this is a gift. I am a steward for this (organization). And we help other people with it. My wish is to scatter all the good and gifts that God and Tom have given me to this city and community."
The Benson plan would mirror what happened upon the 2014 death of Ralph Wilson, who owned the Buffalo Bills. He bequeathed proceeds from the $1.4 billion sale of the team to the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation.
But the Saints are worth much more. According to Forbes, the franchise is valued at $2.85 billion, and in recent years the value has been climbing by about 11% annually.
For a relatively poor community, as franchise cities go, that’s a pot of money that could be transformational.
“We’re talking potentially billions of dollars,” said Saints President Dennis Lauscha, who will administer the fund. “There’s nothing like it. We can do a tremendous amount of good.”
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