Tom Benson, owner of Saints and Pelicans, dies at 90


Los Angeles (AFP)

Tom Benson, owner of the NFL's New Orleans Saints and the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans, died Thursday at the age of 90, a month after falling ill with the flu, the teams announced.

"Tom Benson, 90, passed away peacefully Thursday, March 15 at Ochsner Medical Center with his wife Gayle Marie Benson at his side," a statement posted on both team websites said. "Mr. Benson was hospitalized with the flu on February 16."

Benson, who went to work as a bookkeeper for the Cathey Chevrolet Company in New Orleans and went on to found an auto dealership empire, bought the Saints in 1985 for $70 million after learning that parties interested in relocating the franchise were about to buy it.

Two years later, the Saints made the playoffs for the first time. The Saints won their only NFL title to date in February of 2010, when they beat an Indianapolis Colts team led by New Orleans native Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl.

Under Benson's ownership, the Saints reached two conference title games and earned three division crowns and 10 playoff berths.

Benson bought the NBA's New Orleans Hornets from the league for $338 million in 2012. The NBA had purchased the struggling franchise, which had relocated from Charlotte in 2002, from George Shinn in 2010.

Benson renamed the club, choosing as a mascot the state bird of Louisiana as a better fit for New Orleans.

Benson did anger fans in New Orleans when he flirted with the idea of moving the Saints. That included his desire to keep the team in San Antonio, where they temporarily relocated after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

But the team returned to New Orleans and the Saints went on to their greatest success.

"Tom Benson's contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said. "He purchased a team that had never had a winning season; by the third year of his ownership, the Saints were in the playoffs.

"Tom kept the Saints together through the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and his decision to bring the team back to New Orleans gave the entire region hope and confidence that they would recover.

"The Saints rewarded their fans with tremendous football and a Super Bowl championship."

In 2017, Benson settled a long court battle with his heirs over the Saints, the Pelicans and other parts of his considerable fortune.

Benson had filed a lawsuit in 2015 to bar his daughter Renee and grandchildren Ryan and Rita LeBlanc out of any ownership stake in the teams.

Terms of the settlement, which had been in the works since the previous year, were not disclosed.