Tom Benson, the owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, passed away on Thursday, March 15. He was 90 years old.
In an official statement released by the Saints on their website, the organization said that Benson passed away at Ochsner Medical Center. The statement also went on to say that Benson had been hospitalized with the flu since Feb. 16.
Benson is perhaps best known for purchasing and keeping New Orleans’ two major professional sports franchises in the city. He bought the Saints from original owner John Mecom Jr. in 1985 after other parties expressed interest in buying and relocating the team. Benson also bought the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans) from the NBA in 2012 after former Hornets owner George Shinn sold the franchise to the league in December 2010. Benson’s purchase of the Pelicans ensured the team’s long-term security in New Orleans.
A native of New Orleans, Benson was born in the city on July 12, 1927. He studied business administration at Loyola University New Orleans, and served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After his naval service and completion of his studies at Loyola, he worked his way up in the automotive sales industry, eventually creating his own conglomerate of dealerships. Benson also had ties to the banking industry, forming Benson Financial World in 1972.
As owner of the Saints, Benson presided over some of the highest and lowest points in the franchise’s history. The Saints experienced their first winning season and playoff appearance, going 12-3 in 1987 under Benson. More success would later come to the franchise in 2010 when the Saints won their first and only Super Bowl to date. That Super Bowl victory is the only major championship won by a New Orleans-based professional sports franchise to date.
Though Benson served as owner of New Orleans’ NBA franchise for only six seasons, he oversaw major changes to the team. After purchasing the team, which was then known as the Hornets, he supervised a rebranding of the team, which was renamed the New Orleans Pelicans. This gave the franchise a name and mascot with ties to Louisiana and the local area.
After his death was made public, tributes to Benson flooded social media platforms.
“Rest In Peace Mr B. Thank You for your Leadership and all that gave to our city. Thank You for believing in me,” Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said on Twitter.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees posted a tribute and picture of the two men together on Instagram.
“I will forever be indebted to Mr. Tom Benson for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to be a member of the Saints organization and the New Orleans community,” Brees said. “I will miss his presence, leadership, and grandfatherly advice. We know you will continue to watch over us all with that umbrella in your hand.”
Pelicans star forward Anthony Davis also tweeted about how Benson impacted his life.
“Mr Benson has meant so much to this city & to my career in NOLA. Mr B & his wife Gayle treated me like family since I arrived & I’m forever indebted to them for their kindness & generosity. He will be missed!”
According to Forbes, Benson’s net worth was $3 billion dollars at the time of his death. Forbes also listed him as the richest person in Louisiana in 2017, but Benson was also known to invest in other ventures locally. In July of 2017, Benson purchased a majority stake in the Dixie Brewing Company with the intention of bringing the brewing operation for locally-renowned Dixie Beer back to New Orleans after its destruction by Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to his ownership of the Saints and Pelicans, Benson was also active in his community. The statement announcing his death also highlighted how the Gayle and Tom Benson Foundation serves New Orleans and Texas through educational and charitable causes. In 2014, Benson also donated $11 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to go towards the construction of the hall’s Hall of Fame Village development. As a part of the project and in acknowledgement of his contributions, the home of the annual Hall of Fame Game, Fawcett Stadium, was renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
With his death, ownership of the Saints and Pelicans will now fall to his wife Gayle Benson.