Tom Benson loved to tell the story of the 1985 phone call he received from then Governor Edwin Edwards. John Mecom Jr., the original owner of the New Orleans Saints franchise, wanted to sell and there was a chance the city would lose the team to foreign investors. Edwards told Benson he was planning a meeting with potential buyers and would like Benson to attend. Benson will recall going to the meeting to find that “I was the only potential investor he had.”
Whatever Edwards cajoling, it worked. Benson, at the time a little-known owner of car dealerships, formed an owner group and immersed himself in the world of NFL football. He would soon buy out his partners and become the sole owner of the franchise he would lead, building a success in one of the league’s smaller markets and ultimately becoming one of the only owners who could wear a Super Bowl ring. .
Last week the question of the sale of Saints arose again. There is nothing immediate to our knowledge, but a series in The Times-Picayune / The New Orleans Advocate reported an in-depth interview with team owner Gayle Benson and President Dennis Lauscha. Benson said she would someday have to sell the franchise, as well as the Pelicans (there are no legal heirs), but insisted that everything would be done to ensure the new owners keep the franchises in New Orleans. Lauscha, who is assigned to oversee sales, agrees. Another good news: the profits from the sales would be donated to local charities. Lauscha will oversee this as well. (The series describes philanthropy as âa ‘transformational’ endowment for the city.â) They are good people.
I thought back to Tom Benson’s meeting with Edwards. What if the Saints franchise ended up in the hands of a big corporation, especially an out-of-town group? (Investors in Jacksonville, who at the time did not have an NFL franchise, were hoping to relocate the Saints to their hometown.) At the time, skeptics wondered if a local car dealership was up to the task. Benson may not have known all the X’s and O’s in professional sports, but, more importantly, he had a heart for the city. What New Orleans lacks in Fortune 500 companies we have at least in a preponderance of people who truly think the city is a special place – a Venice of the soul. Fortunately, Gayle Benson feels the same.
That same commitment is made to keep the NBA Pelicans in town. The team has yet to have major success in their game, but neither have the Saints, the team that was once so pitiful that fans wore paper bags on their heads and called the franchise the âAintsâ. Many disappointing seasons passed before things got magical. The same could happen to pelicans.
Losing a franchise to another city can hurt. In the newspaper series, Lauscha, like the Bensons, a New Orleans native, remembers when New Orleans suddenly lost the NBA Jazz franchise in 1979 saying, “It tore my heart when the Jazz left.”
I too remember feeling bitterness. It all seemed so devious. One day the season ended, the next day it was announced that the franchise, owned by an outside resident, Californian Sam Battistone, was moving to Salt Lake City. (Battistone also owned a chain of restaurants, actually called “Sambo’s)”. The city filed a complaint, but it was pointless. The franchise has just left – and then had the nerve to keep the name “Jazz”. (My suggestion at the time was that if New Orleans ever had another NBA franchise, it should be called âTabernacle Choirâ or âTabsâ for short.) The NBA did nothing to stop the heist. .
Luckily the Saints and Pelicans are in more trustworthy hands because Gayle Benson is such a decent person, Dennis Lauscha is a local guy who doesn’t care, and because Tom Benson once returned a phone call. of the governor.
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