The Benson Empire
Why the Texans should not inherit it
AN ORIGINAL ©MIKE LUCKOVICH CARTOON FOR NEW ORLEANS MAGAZINE
We support Tom Benson in his decision to have his wife, Gayle, inherit ownership of the Saints and the Pelicans. Benson has been a good owner who has built a winning team and wrangled deals with the state that are reviving the neighborhood in the Superdome’s vicinity. Had it not been for Benson, the city might have lost the Saints long ago and would be much poorer because of it.
Gayle Benson is a classy person who has been alongside her husband during some tough times, particularly the aftermath of Katrina. She is not a sports person, but she will bring stability to the front office side of the business. Without her, the two franchises might plummet in talent at the managerial level.
Watching the conflict within Benson’s estranged family has been painful. More painful is the thought that the franchises could end up in the hands of people who have not really been a part of the city and whose service to the organization has been minimal. Building and maintaining a thriving city is a battle. They have not been here for the fight.
That brings us to this point: The Saints exist as a creation of New Orleans hustle, ingenuity and persistence. The franchise is of this city. If anyone should profit from the sports legacy, it should be the fans that supported the team for so long, most often through painful losing seasons.
New Orleans in the 1960s was a city in crisis. As in many cities, migration to the suburbs was intensifying, causing a decline in the tax base just as the cities had to provide for the growing, usually poorer, population. Though New Orleans was respected as a party town and admired for its port, it was a place that people would want to embrace but not get serious about. New Orleans wanted to have more of a national presence. Both literally and figuratively, it needed to be in a league with the nation’s major cities.
A National Football League franchise could bring such prestige. Until the national Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, professional sports shunned the Deep South. Once the bill became law, changes began. Most prized was an NFL franchise. It was understood that Atlanta would be the first to get an expansion team. New Orleans, it was thought, could be next.
Doing so was not easy. Local visionary Dave Dixon, an antiques dealer by trade, led the campaign for a franchise and a domed stadium. He got the support of Governor John McKeithen, who risked backing among his northern Louisiana constituents by actively supporting the dome. U.S. Senator Russell Long and Congressman Hale Boggs helped the NFL with legal needs in Washington, particularly in matters of antitrust. New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu chaired an often-tempestuous domed stadium commission.
These were the people who made the awarding of an NFL franchise to New Orleans possible. They gave the city expertise and hard work.
Tom Benson is a self-made man from the Gentilly neighborhood. His wife, Gayle, grew up on the West Bank. Before she met Benson she had already established herself with an interior design business. Both are people who are from and of New Orleans. They struggled to the top and got there by finesse, not through inheritance.
We understand that inheritance is a way of the world and that all of us want some of it, but when it is applied to the Saints the subject is especially touchy. To think that three people, two of whom are domiciled in Texas, want to tap into something that is such a civic cause is maddening.
New Orleans has already made them rich. Cash cows though should not be allowed to roam.