In her biggest decision since taking over the Pelicans eleven months ago, Gayle Benson relieved longtime general manger Dell Demps of his duties Friday. In doing so, she marked the earnest beginning of a new era of New Orleans ownership.
When Benson initially took over following the death of her late husband, the Pelicans were flying high. The team was just starting to come together on the court for what would be a blazing hot finish to the season that saw the Pelicans advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Given the success of the prior season, it was no surprise that Benson decided to stick with Demps to see if he could finally turn the Pelicans into a consistent winner. Fast forward eleven months and it’s clear he could not, culminating in the exhaustively covered Anthony Davis trade request. Now Benson stands on the door step of what could eventually turn her into the most powerful woman in sports.
33rd NFL Franchise
One familiar motif amongst many sports pundits before the AD trade request has been the idea that the Saints take precedent over the Pelicans in the mind of ownership. The current saga has only furthered that notion. While there is definitely some truth to that line of thought as every corporation allocates more resources to larger business units as opposed to smaller ones, I think there is a bit more nuance to the situation than that.
The seeds for this this perception were planted right at the beginning of the Benson tenure. Tom Benson purchased the Pelicans from the NBA in 2012 and immediately placed Loomis in charge of his new acquisition. Of course the idea of putting a “football guy” in charge of an NBA franchise was head scratching, but given deeper thought it made perfect sense given the totality of the situation.
Prior to her death a few years ago, my grandmother suffered from dementia. In her case it was a slow and painful decline in which she slowly lost her prized mental faculties that had helped her become a successful black female entrepreneur in the segregated Jim Crow South — something she was proud of until her final day. In watching the Benson situation with the Pelicans unfold, I saw several parallels with my grandmother that I feel gave me a greater insight into the early decisions made by New Orleans ownership.
The interesting thing about many of our elders as they decline is that they know its happening. They know they should remember your name, they know you are an important figure in their life but they can’t quite place you all the time. This is very frightening because they fully understand how vulnerable they are in that state and yet, except for a few intermittent moments of clarity, they are powerless to stop it. Consequently, the group around people in this situation begins to shrink. Only the most trusted advisors are allowed in, people who wouldn’t take advantage of you even if they could.
This was true for my grandmother as well as she would only discuss issues of money with my mother, who was her caretaker for the final decade of her life. While she loved all of her five children, she didn’t trust them with sensitive information because quite frankly they weren’t in the trenches with her everyday. They weren’t taking her to doctor appointments, leaving work early to check on her, or making sure she got exercise. Thus, it didn’t surprise me that Tom Benson selected valued and trusted longtime advisor Mickey Loomis to head his newly purchased franchise. Tom Benson knew all to well of the legal battle that was coming and knowing that he couldn’t manage as much as he used to he wanted someone that he could trust above all else.
This explanation doesn’t make the original management structure of the Benson Pelicans optimal, but from the perspective of a business man with declining health in the midst of a bitter estate battle it makes complete sense. However, that period in franchise history is over and it is time to look forward and begin operating like a regular NBA entity.
19th century banker Baron Rothschild was once said, “the time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” Rothschild was in many ways one of the forefathers of the modern banking system and his quote expresses an investment philosophy that is still coveted by modern investors. That concept says the very best time to invest in something is when everyone hates it, when no one has anything good to say about it, and it’s unthinkable to the outside world that the situation could ever get better. People like Warren Buffett credit this investment philosophy with helping them attain some of the largest fortunes ever amassed.
Does that description of the “blood on the streets” metaphor remind you of anything?
Of course, try our lowly lovable Pelicans. Scan the national television or print media and you’ll hardly find a soul who is willing to mention a single redeemable quality about New Orleans. There is no doubt that the Pelicans haven’t done everything correctly over the years, but to portray them as dumpster fire — only Alvin Gentry’s use of the term when talking about the Anthony Davis trade fiasco — is hyperbole and often portends the general ignorance of the pundit in question.
However, if we were sitting down with Baron Rothschild, he would likely be considering on making a bid for the Pelicans. Thankfully they’re not for sale so owner Gayle Benson has a real chance to put her mark on this franchise. To be honest, the Pelicans, not the Saints, are her chance to leave a lasting impression on New Orleans. The Saints are a well-oiled machine, Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton are Saints lifers, and with a young team that looks poised for future success, don’t expect the cast to be leaving town anytime soon.
When Gayle walks around the Saints facility, everyone she sees was hired and/or mentored by Tom Benson. While we can be sure she loves all of these folks greatly, everything involving Saints leadership is about the legend, real or perceived, of “good ole Mr. B.” No, it is with the floundering Pelicans that Gayle can really make her mark.
With the dismissal of longtime general manager Dell Demps, Mrs. Benson is ready to begin the process of building her own legacy.
Within a few short months, key personnel leading the Pelicans organization will have been interviewed and hired by Gayle Benson. Surely, others will help her make important decisions, but the new general manager and his or her subsequently hired staff will answer to Mrs. B — she will ultimately be held responsible for future success or failure. Because of this dynamic, I think the truth about Gayle Benson’s allegiances to her sports franchises may ultimately end up being the inverse of how they are currently perceived. Think about it, don’t you take more pride in things that you have built yourself over something that is just handed to you?
Future Pelicans management won’t have any old stories about what Tom did for them or how instrumental he was in their career. They (likely) won’t have pictures in their offices of Tom doing his trademark off rhythm umbrella dance. They won’t go on and on about the valuable business lessons he taught them. I’m sure Gayle loved hearing these stories, but I’m also sure she wants to write some of her own. While the Saints will always be important to her — after all, they are a freaking cash cow, only in turning around the Pelicans can she truly separate herself from the family name.
A relatively quick Pelicans turnaround would change the openly misogynistic view of her as “just Tom Benson’s widow” and into THE most powerful woman in sports as one of only two individuals who owns a team in both the NFL and NBA. Establishing herself as a power player in the sports world would benefit both franchises and unlock unique opportunities presented by owning two major sports franchises. I’m not saying that success is guaranteed, but I am saying we need to give her a chance.
Dismiss people who view her only as “the widow” — as Ringer CEO Bill Simmons referred to her repeatedly on his podcast — and those who express skepticism about her decision-making. First, we haven’t seen her make any big decisions prior to firing Dell Demps so it’s too early to even make that judgement. Second, we all know why they are so unsure. No one expressed concern when the York family turned the San Francisco 49ers over to then 29-year-old Jed York. Similarly, no one expressed concern when Al Davis passed away and left the team to his son. (Not unrelated, the Raiders as of this writing still do not know where they will play next season.)
Gayle Benson doesn’t deserve a pass, but like all of us, she only deserves a chance. A chance to prove that she can be the owner the Pelicans need her to be. I can’t see inside of her brain, I can’t envision the future, but I can read the tea leaves, and if Mrs. Benson is as smart as I think she is, she will too.
Every time she walks into the Super Dome, Mrs. B walks past the towering status of her late husband. If Gayle Benson is to ever have a statue erected in her honor, it should probably be placed outside of the Smoothie King Center.