Domestic Dispute

Myriad questions abound in Saints, Pelicans succession as Tom Benson charts a new course for his $2 billion business empire.

Audubon Place is not the street you’d expect to see it, but one of the state’s wealthiest families is airing their dirty laundry on full public display.      

After a decade-plus of grooming his granddaughter, Rita Benson LeBlanc, to take over ownership of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, Tom Benson changed his plan, and now wants to hand them over to his wife of 10 years, Gayle Benson. It was a change of heart that has seemingly torn apart his family and rocked the Crescent City.

The dynastic dilemma came to light last Wednesday when a statement allegedly written by Tom Benson and given to The Times-Picayune revealed the new plan. The next day, Benson’s daughter, Renee LeBlanc, who was to receive 60 percent interest in the family businesses, and her children, Ryan LeBlanc and Rita Benson LeBlanc, who were to receive 20 percent each, filed suit to challenge the plan, saying Benson is no longer capable of properly running his $2 billion business empire due to age and illness.

The issue is headed to court and neither side is talking publicly now. But something isn’t passing the smell test. The more information is revealed, the more questions arise.

Is Tom Benson actually author of the communications?

Is he mentally fit?

If not, who is in charge of his holdings and their dealings? Who would make the call on personnel changes say if a head coach, general manager or team president needs to be replaced?

If so, what caused the dramatic reversal after more than a decade of succession planning?

When asked about his health, the Saints declined to comment. But this we do know – Tom Benson has faced several health issues in the past year. He was hospitalized twice this summer during the Saints' training camp in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and once during the NFL owners meeting in Atlanta this autumn. He looked frail and not his normal self at the September unveiling of a statue bearing his likenes between the Superdome and Champions Square. Maybe it was his recovering from multiple surgeries, but he has also seemed to be inconspicuously absent from appearing publicly. Almost all of his recent correspondence has been in writing and he hasn’t appeared on camera to discuss what’s happening.

Some have argued that Benson can do what he wants because it’s his money. But each of the LeBlancs has worked within the family’s various enterprises for nearly 20 years, helping to grow the business’ value and their grandfather’s fortune. The LeBlancs have earned a vested interest in these businesses, and, as family members, they have a right to know about their patriarch’s health.

In the suit, the LeBlancs say Benson, 87, recently wasn’t able to correctly identify the current president of the United States when asked, guessing Ronald Reagan then Harry Truman. Additionally, he is said to have missed Renee LeBlanc’s recent birthday and requested a meeting with Ryan after he allegedly sent an e-mail to the LeBlancs on Saturday, Dec. 27, 2014, which said that due to family strife after he married Gayle he wants “no further contact with any of you.”

If true, these may be signs of dementia.

There is a lot of money on the Benson table, and there’s the potential for a lot more to be made in the coming years. The Saints have one of the most financially beneficial stadium lease agreements in all of sports. With nearly a decade of season ticket sellouts, 15,000 people on the waiting list to get season tickets, and only 10 years remaining on their Superdome lease, negotiating for a new stadium to open in or around 2025 is not out of the realm of possibility, especially considering the Superdome is 40 years old and in 2014 New Orleans lost bids to host the Super Bowl, College Football National Championship Game and Final Four. It could be easily argued the city needs a new stadium to compete with new facilities in Dallas, Atlanta and Phoenix, which has or will be hosting at least one of the country’s biggest three annual sporting events in coming years. A new stadium would mean increased income, no doubt. And the best place to put it would be on land right next to the Superdome where the Benson Tower, Champions Square and parking garage (all Benson’s) currently sit.

It’s already been said that the only winners in this mess will be lawyers. There is a lot at stake, especially for the LeBlancs, who look to have up to three-quarters of the $2 billion in family assets to lose.

This case has the potential to get vey, very ugly. And it begs a few final things to ponder.

With so much discord, is New Orleans the place where players and coaches will want to be to advance their careers?

After all is said and done, will either party be able to retain the teams or be forced to sell?

And will New Orleans still be a two-sport city when this concludes?




Categories: Legal, The Pennant Chase