San Antonio billionaire and philanthropist Tom Benson, owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, died March 15 in New Orleans after a month-long bout with the flu. He was 90.
Though Benson was born and raised in New Orleans, he made his fortune in Texas in three businesses: car dealerships, banking, and media.
“From a business perspective, Benson’s journey began in 1958 with a move to San Antonio to run the business operations for a Chevrolet dealership owned by New Orleans car dealer Michael Persia Sr.,” according to Benson’s obituary on the Saints’ website. “In 1962, Benson expanded his ... automobile dealerships in Texas. He also successfully expanded his business interests into the banking industry.”
Benson bought the Saints in 1985 after learning the team was about to be sold to a group that wanted to move the team out of New Orleans. The Saints went on to win the Super Bowl in 2009.
Austin native Drew Brees, who’s spent most of his NFL career as quarterback of the Saints, said in a statement: “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. I will miss his presence, leadership, and grandfatherly advice. We know you will continue to watch over all of us with that umbrella in your hand.”
In true Mardi Gras fashion, Benson — carrying a fleur-de-lis-covered umbrella — would break into celebratory dances during Saints games at New Orleans’ Superdome.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu noted that Benson’s impact was felt beyond the sports scene in New Orleans.
“Tom’s commitment to winning extended far beyond the football field and basketball court. Through his generous support of the arts, education, faith-based causes, health and wellness and our veterans, Tom put our local community first in so many ways,” Landrieu said in a statement.
In San Antonio, Benson was responsible for funding the football stadium at the University of the Incarnate Word, as well as libraries at St. Anthony Catholic School and Central Catholic High School, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fondly remembered Benson, too. “Tom was a friend and an ally, and I admired him greatly. He was a proud Texan, who also embraced his leadership role in the State of Louisiana,” Jones said in a statement.
Benson added to his sports holdings in 2012 with the purchase of the New Orleans Hornets franchise from the NBA. A year later, the team was renamed the New Orleans Pelicans.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recalled Benson’s kindness toward him. “Over the years, we actually corresponded a couple of times. He was very kind to me on various occasions, and I would respond,” Popovich said. “He’s been a very inclusive, fair-minded, just good person to everybody involved, whether you’re with the New Orleans organization or not.”
Benson later ventured into media with his purchase in 2008 of New Orleans TV station WVUE, the city’s Fox affiliate. He sold his majority stake in the Fox affiliate in 2017.
Arrangements for a public memorial and funeral are pending. Survivors include his wife, Gayle Marie Benson.