METAIRIE, La. -- Gayle Benson has admitted over the years that she really wasn't much of a football fan before she met her husband, Tom, in 2004 and that he took her to an Arena Football League game on their first date.
But that should hardly disqualify the 71-year-old New Orleans native as the newest owner of both the NFL's New Orleans Saints and NBA's New Orleans Pelicans now that Tom Benson has passed away at the age of 90. She joins Paul Allen and Kroenke Sports & Entertainment as the only owners of franchises in both leagues.
In fact, unlike other businessmen and women who have dove headfirst into the sports world after purchasing major franchises, Gayle Benson has essentially been groomed for this position in many ways throughout their 13-year marriage -- especially in recent years while she has joined her husband at league meetings to specifically prepare her for this day.
Tom Benson made the decision in 2015 to oust his daughter and grandchildren as heirs to his two sports franchises and replace them with Gayle, his third wife. And one of the primary reasons he endured that bitter legal feud was because he wanted to ensure the long-term security and stability of the teams, which he was confident that Gayle would provide.
One could argue -- as those spurned heirs did in court -- that Gayle has an unproven track record in the business world, spent mostly as an interior designer before she married Benson.
But Tom was confident that not only was Gayle prepared for the role, but she would continue to lean heavily on his two most trusted lieutenants -- Dennis Lauscha and Mickey Loomis -- among several others in the organization. Lauscha is the president of both franchises, while Loomis serves as Saints general manager and an executive vice president of both franchises.
Gayle sent out a message to Saints and Pelicans fans on Friday, thanking them for their "overwhelming love and prayers."
She said Tom's love for his teams was "rooted in his love for the fans" and said, "To his very last day, Tom Benson's greatest hope was to bring more championships to our fans. I want you to know we are more committed than ever to make his hopes a reality.
"I would like to assure you that we planned carefully for this day and, while my husband could never be replaced, I am blessed to be surrounded by a wonderful leadership team and staff and we will move forward successfully together," Gayle added in the message. "We cannot thank you enough for all of the joy you gave my husband and will continue to do everything within our power to make you proud of our teams and city."
The Saints obviously have a proven track record under Loomis and longtime coach Sean Payton, including their Super Bowl win in 2010. And both the Saints and Pelicans are on an uptick right now, with the Saints coming off of an NFC South title and the Pelicans in the midst of one of the best seasons in franchise history under GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry.
The work continues for both teams despite such sad circumstances. While the Pelicans are in the throes of a playoff push, the NFL's new league year began on Wednesday, and the Saints have scheduled a visit with arguably the NFL's top remaining free agent in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh on Friday.
Likewise, with any major ownership or leadership decisions that might need to be made down the road, Benson was confident he had put the right structure and decision-makers in place.
Gayle has been widely supported throughout both organizations, both publicly and privately. And the rest of the NFL and NBA owners showed their support by approving Benson's succession plans before his death.
Back in 2015-16, the NFL took issue with the Tennessee Titans' ownership structure after the team was divided between late owner Bud Adams' two daughters and his late son's family because the league prefers to have one person serving as the controlling owner. But New York Giants president and CEO John Mara told ESPN at the time that the rest of the league's owners were ultimately comfortable with the structure that was put in place with daughter Amy Adams Strunk in that role.
"As long as you have a good, capable executive running the team, which I think [Titans CEO and president Steve Underwood] is, and I think they've got a good team, a good coach and a good general manager. They'll be fine," Mara said.
Those close to the Bensons have also widely credited Gayle for helping to improve her husband's public image over the past decade-plus, including some remarkable examples of philanthropy and charity, shrewd marketing decisions like the Mercedes-Benz Superdome naming rights and many investments in local New Orleans businesses. That image rehab was needed after the Saints spent a tumultuous 2005 season in San Antonio following Hurricane Katrina amid concerns that the team might leave permanently. Since then, the Saints and Benson arguably became more popular than ever.
Gayle now joins Strunk, the Chicago Bears' Virginia Halas McCaskey and the Detroit Lions' Martha Ford as the only four women who serve as controlling owners of NFL franchises -- though Kim Pegula is a co-owner of the Buffalo Bills and Carol Davis is a co-owner of the Oakland Raiders.
Gayle grew up as Gayle Marie LaJaunie in the Old Algiers section of New Orleans and graduated from Martin Behrman High School. According to a Times-Picayune profile on her in 2015, she started work as a receptionist in a dental office before managing the New Orleans office of a New York-based jewelry business. She then took a college correspondence course in interior design before embarking on a long career in that field. She was twice divorced before she met and married Benson in 2004.
The two met after a mass at St. Louis Cathedral, and Gayle has told the story in past interviews that after he asked her out, she mostly agreed in hopes of getting a donation for the church. But the relationship blossomed quickly, and they were married later that year.
Unfortunately, the relationship between Gayle and Tom's daughter Renee Benson and grandchildren Rita LeBlanc and Ryan LeBlanc grew contentious and confrontational over the years, leading to Tom's decision to cut them out of his life and his sports franchises in December 2014. They responded with an unsuccessful lawsuit that sought to have Tom declared mentally unfit to run his businesses, claiming that he was being manipulated by Gayle and others in the organization.
The spurned heirs also attacked Gayle's business credentials in that lawsuit. The New Orleans Advocate unearthed roughly 20 civil lawsuits against Gayle or her company during her years as an interior designer, although the Advocate pointed out that many of the cases were minor and cited an expert as saying that field of business can be especially litigious. Saints and Pelicans officials also countered those claims by pointing to a number of prominent clients that were satisfied with Gayle's work over the years, including several high-end hotels, supermarkets and auto dealerships.
The two sides ultimately reached a private settlement last year that included the removal of non-voting shares of the teams from family trusts. And through it all, Tom steadfastly stood by his decision to turn the franchises over to Gayle, while also preparing her for the role.
Gayle has given only occasional media interviews. But she has been ever-present in the public eye at Saints and Pelicans games, league and local events and serving on local boards, etc. She sat prominently in the front row Monday near Drew Brees and Steve Gleason and several others as longtime Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief announced his retirement alongside Loomis and Payton at the team facility.
A lot of people in that room represented Tom Benson's legacy as part of the "golden era" of the Saints franchise. And Tom felt confident before his passing that he would be leaving that legacy in good hands.