PHOENIX – Gayle Benson chuckled when it was suggested that she has had a baptism by fire. A little more than a year since the passing of her husband, Tom, left her in such a powerful position — the first woman as primary owner for an NFL and NBA franchises – Benson has had a front-row seat to two of the most controversial sports developments of the year.
Days after her New Orleans Saints were stung by an egregious non-call in the NFC title game that helped prevent them from a Super Bowl berth, the New Orleans Pelicans’ marquee player, Anthony Davis, declared that he wants out.
What a double-downer for the sports faithful in The Crescent City.
“Life is not a bed of roses, and we’re not promised that,” Benson, 72, said during a lunch session with USA TODAY and several New Orleans media outlets at the NFL owners’ meetings last week. “We just deal with situations as they happen, because that’s just what life is about. We have to accept whatever is given to us; work through it.”
No, running two sports franchises didn’t come with a “stress-free” clause. That much was evident in 2015, when her late husband’s decision to cut his daughter and granddaughters out of his will – leaving his second wife to inherit the Saints, Pelicans and other businesses contained in a multi-billion-dollar empire – was upheld in a bitter court battle.
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The recent drama with the teams probably pales when compared to the legal challenge.
Nonetheless, Benson’s stature was on full display as she gathered with other NFL owners last week. As promised in the days following the NFC Championship Game, she continued to lobby other NFL owners to pass a new rule that could prevent from a repeat of the officiating blunder – missing a blatant pass interference – that doomed the Saints.
While owners, coaches and league officials ultimately came to the solution of expanding instant replay to include pass interference, Benson made news in another league, too.
Sell the Pelicans? She shot down the rumors that her NBA franchise was on the block – and ripe to be relocated to Seattle.
“There is no way I’m going to sell that team – ever,” Benson proclaimed. “I value the Pelicans as much as I do the Saints. I don’t look at myself as owner of the teams. I feel like it’s an asset that I’m protecting for the city.”
Benson, a New Orleans native, ran an interior design business for 30 years before marrying Tom. She mentioned that to illustrate that she is comfortable in her leadership role for franchises at both ends of the competitive spectrum in their respective leagues. The Saints are considered a Super Bowl contender again; the Pelicans are close to wrapping up their sixth losing season in eight years.
The struggles of the NBA franchise hardly fuels desire to dump it, she insisted.
“I’m not going to sell anything Mr. Benson started or wanted,” she added. “So people are going to talk. There’s really nothing you can do about that. And time will care of it. They’ll see I’m sincere and I’m not going anywhere. I mean, I wouldn’t know where to go.”
It has been clear within NFL circles that Benson is determined to have legitimate influence on key issues that go way beyond pushing the rule change. Commissioner Roger Goodell said it was striking that days after Tom Benson’s burial last spring, Gayle Benson attended the NFL owners’ meetings in Orlando. She told Goodell that she wanted to serve on committees – so, for starters, he appointed her to the business ventures committee.
Of course, during the committee’s dinner on Sunday night, when Benson sat at a table with Goodell and three other owners, the topic turned to the blown call that marred the NFC title game. She said fellow owners have been compassionate, with some even apologizing, for the Saints’ grief.
“We all know,” she said. “It can happen to any of us. It just happened to happen for us.”
Interestingly, Benson said that Rams owner Stan Kroenke – whose team benefited from the blown call – was among those to express regret.
“I’ve been in those situations, believe me,” Kroenke told USA TODAY. “I’ve been on the wrong side of those calls. I have some empathy for people who have been in that situation. Having said that, that was a tremendous game and (the controversial non-call) shouldn’t take anything away from the game. The players on both sides played their hearts out.”
Still, when the conversation following a championship game revolves around the officiating, it’s not a good thing for the NFL.
“Let’s get the calls right,” Kroenke added. “I’ll never have a quarrel with that.”
Kroenke can relate to Benson on another level, too. His wife, Ann Walton Kroenke, owns the NBA Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche. The NFL’s cross-ownership policy prohibits an individual from owning teams in different sports in a different market where there is an NFL franchise, but ownership by a spouse isn’t a violation.
His advice for Benson?
“It’s getting the right people in the right places,” Kroenke said. “She’s fortunate she’s got Sean Payton. He’s a great coach. As owners, we don’t pick the players and we don’t coach the players. But we have huge influence on who does that. And if you can get talented people in the right place, things can generally work.
“It’s like Steve Jobs says: We’re hiring a lot of smart people. No, I’m not here to tell them what to do. They’re here to tell me what they’re going to do. Or else we shouldn’t have hired them.”
Benson’s top football architects – Payton and Mickey Loomis – provide the Saints with one of the most proven coach-GM combinations in the NFL. Now if she can only establish such a 1-2 punch with the Pelicans as she restructures the team’s leadership.
In February, the Pelicans fired GM Dell Demps amid his eighth season. Benson praised interim GM Danny Ferry and coach Alvin Gentry, but said the search for a new GM has been narrowed a “five or six” candidates – and that the next GM will determine the fate of the coach.
Technically, Loomis is still listed as the Pelicans’ vice president of basketball operations – which fueled much criticism when considering his football background. Although Benson said that Loomis will consult her and Dennis Lauscha, president of both teams, in the GM choice, he’ll ultimately relinquish any role with the Pelicans and concentrate solely on the Saints.
Payton senses the challenges facing his new boss, but points to her “cool, calm, collected” demeanor as a steadying force. Given that she was involved with the teams while her husband was alive, Payton maintains that it aided the transition.
Asked if there was concern that major changes would occur following Tom Benson’s death, Payton told USA TODAY: “No one ever knows exactly, but there was a lot of confidence from those who knew her well. She’s been tremendously supportive.”
Benson downplays the power surge element to her existence. But maybe that’s merely semantics as she reflects on her first year as NFL-NBA owner.
“Empowered, not,” she said. “But I do feel more comfortable, knowing Mr. B. entrusted this to me and he knew I could handle it.”