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Saints owner dead at 90

Tom Benson, a successful auto dealer and longtime owner of the New Orleans Saints who brought the franchise its only winning seasons and the "Benson Boogie," has died.

Benson also owned the NBA's New Orleans Pelicans since 2012, but the 90-year-old made his mark in pro sports with the Saints.

The teams announced Benson's death on Thursday. He had been hospitalized since Feb. 16 with flu symptoms.

Benson bought the Saints in 1985 when it appeared the club would be sold to out-of-state interests and perhaps moved out of Louisiana. He paid $70 million for the team, which is now worth close to $2 billion.

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

Benson's business acumen helped turn the Saints from a perennial also-ran into a contender — and the 2009 NFL champion. Yet his ownership also was less flatteringly marked by the 2012 bounty scandal and reports Benson did not want to bring the team back to New Orleans from San Antonio after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005.

When the NBA took over the financially troubled New Orleans Hornets in late 2010 and spent more than a year trying to find a permanent owner, Benson finally stepped in and bought the club for $338 million. The club is now known as the Pelicans and its estimated value exceeds $1 billion.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he'd remembered Benson as big-hearted an gracious, and praised the way he not only ran the Pelicans, but also hosted two All-Star weekends in New Orleans, the second after it had been moved from Charlotte following state legislation deemed discriminatory by the NBA.

Benson also became a leading New Orleans philanthropist. He helped fund Tulane's on-campus football stadium and the cancer treatment centre at Ochsner Medical Center. The home of the NFL's Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, also was renamed for Tom Benson after an $11 million gift, the largest in the hall's history.

Benson "possessed a deep passion for the game and was committed to its growth," said Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker, who was also the Arena Football League commissioner when Benson owned an arena team called the VooDoo.

Benson's death comes on the heels of an acrimonious family split that has caused some uncertainty about the future of his professional teams.

He made it known in January 2015 that he wants his third wife, Gayle, to inherit complete control of the Saints and Pelicans, and Greg Bensel, the senior vice-president of communications for both clubs, said the NFL and NBA have both approved Benson's succession plan.

However, Benson's disowned daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc — who had long been in line to take over the Benson business empire — have vowed to prove their patriarch was manipulated against them while in a mentally enfeebled state. They lost a 2015 legal struggle for control of the teams, but could still contest Benson's will.



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