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Saints and Pelicans Owner Tom Benson Dies at 90

Ownership of the two New Orleans franchises will transfer to his wife, Gayle Benson

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Tom Benson, the owner of the New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Pelicans, died Thursday. He was 90 years old.

Benson, whose net worth was recently estimated by Forbes at $3 billion, had owned the Saints since 1985, when he bought the team for $70 million. Benson bought the Pelicans—then named the Hornets—from the NBA in 2012 for $338 million. The richest person in Louisiana, he had become one of the city’s most prominent public figures.

The Saints won their only championship in 2010 under Benson. He is credited with having kept the Pelicans in New Orleans, though he reportedly entertained moving the Saints to San Antonio, a hub of his business operations, following Hurricane Katrina.

Benson’s entire empire, including the two teams, will now be put in the hands of his wife, Gayle Benson, 71. The Saints’ Twitter account affirmed as much on Thursday in a stern rebuke to a story written by NOLA.com in the wake of Tom Benson’s death.

Tom Benson announced three years ago that he would leave the two franchises in the hands of his wife, setting off a long and nasty legal battle with his daughter and her children in which the former argued that Benson was not mentally stable. Tom Benson tried to remove the ownership shares of his daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan, but when the trustees blocked the move, Benson sued. At one point during the trial, Benson claimed that his daughter and grandchildren attempted to kill him.

The two parties settled in February 2017. With his passing, Tom Benson’s daughter can still contest his will by suing to regain control of the teams from Gayle Benson. The Advocate reported on Thursday that those close to Tom Benson say the plan is for Gayle Benson to take over her late husband’s assets, and that the teams’ president, Dennis Lauscha, and the Saints’ general manager, Mickey Loomis, are ready to counsel Gayle. Lauscha, Loomis, and Greg Bensel, Benson’s senior vice president of communications, have maintained significant roles in Benson’s sports operations, including his thoroughbred horses, for years.

The value of professional sports teams has boomed in recent years. The Houston Rockets were sold this past September for $2.2 billion, while Forbes has the Carolina Panthers, who have been put up for sale by owner Jerry Richardson, valued at $2.3 billion. Forbes currently values the Saints at $971 million and the Pelicans at $750 million.

“Tom Benson’s contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.

“The NBA family mourns the loss of New Orleans Pelicans owner Tom Benson,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.