A Saintly Steward
Through a year of ups and downs, Gayle Benson shows her mettle, love for New Orleans
Succession can be tricky. There is no guarantee that moving a business from one owner to another will keep an operation successful. It’s even truer when a portfolio of businesses changes hands. Sometimes the skill and charisma of the preceding owner can’t be matched by the new boss, and the business suffers. Still sometimes, the new owner has a skillset that outshines their predecessor.
It’s been a year since Tom Benson passed and his wife, Gayle, inherited the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, among other business interests. While she was alongside Mr. Benson for several years, soaking up as much knowledge as she could about running the franchises, she’s been on her own, directing it all, for the past 12 months. With teams in two of the nation’s top three professional sports leagues, Sports Illustrated has called her “the most powerful woman in sports.” But to call her tenure as owner of both teams challenging would be an understatement.
The Saints, of course, rebounded from a gut wrenching loss in the NFC Divisional round to become the top rated team in the league in 2018. The Black & Gold seemed destined to go to the Super Bowl, until a heart wrenching no call on an obvious pass interference that, if called, would have certainly sent them to their second championship game in franchise history.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, won their first playoff series with superstar Anthony Davis last spring, and appeared to be making a move to become more competitive in the Western Conference. The team couldn’t re-sign free agent leaders DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo in the offseason, and the Pelicans couldn’t recapture the magic they had a season before. Then mid-season, Davis announced he wouldn’t sign a contract extension this coming offseason and demanded to be traded. When a deal wasn’t made by the trade deadline, the two parties were stuck together for better or worse. To protect their asset’s trade value, the Pelicans wanted to bench Davis to prevent him from possibly injuring himself. That was until the NBA stepped in and said the team would be fined $100,000 for each game he didn’t play. They didn’t want to hear from fans who bought tickets expecting to see Davis and felt they weren’t getting their money’s worth. Unfortunately for both sides, the situation has been more on the worse side than the better. Davis went from beloved to be gone. This week, he was fined $15,000 for giving a fan the middle finger as he walked off the court after Wednesday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets.
Through two of, arguably, the most grueling circumstances a team owner can go through, Gayle Benson has handled herself and each situation with dignity and class. It is easy to understand why players, coaches, team personnel, and fans hold her in such high regard. For each impediment that has been put in her way, she has had a graceful, measured response.
From the NFL Owners’ Meetings in Phoenix this week, she said about the Saints, “Life is not a bed of roses, and we aren't promised that. So we just deal with the situations as they happen. That's what life is about. We have to accept whatever is given to us and work through it.”
Asked about Davis’ situation with the Pelicans, she replied, “I’m disappointed, but I wish Anthony the best of luck. He needs to do what's best for him. If he feels like he needs to leave, we understand. We're going to miss him. But again, we need to move on.”
When a reporter, possibly assuming running two teams is too much, asked this week if she would consider selling the Pelicans – a move that could likely bring in close to $1 billion and remove a ton of responsibility from her shoulders – her swift response was, "There is no way that I'm going to sell that team ever I value the Pelicans as much as I do the Saints. I don't look at myself as an owner of a team or the teams. I feel like it's an asset that I'm protecting for the city."
She went on to say, “I don’t really truly think we really own anything in life. We take care of things for the next generation, or the next person who comes along.”
That sense of noblesse oblige has been sorely missing from our nation’s psyche, and it’s truly refreshing to hear.
On Thursday, it was announced that she was purchasing the Hyatt Regency Hotel with local hotel developer Darryl Berger and New Jersey-based hotel asset management firm Fulcrum Hospitality. With the Hyatt purchase, which sits next to Champions Square, Benson Tower, the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and the Smoothie King Center, that corner of the CBD might get renamed “The Benson Block.”
Mrs. Benson is a proud New Orleanian. She is investing not only in her teams, but in the city itself. The strategy is a winning one. She has and is further endearing herself in the hearts of fans of New Orleans, the Saints, and the Pelicans.
Succession can be tricky. But Gayle Benson has taken control of the Benson business empire as smoothly as handling a Drew Brees handoff. With the Saints positioned as one of the top teams in the NFL entering the 2019 season, hopefully her efforts will be rewarded with a Super Bowl Championship of her own.