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Volume 24 No. 236

People and Pop Culture

Benson's purchase of the Pelicans in '12 made him the lone owner of both an NBA and NFL team
Photo: NBAE/GETTY IMAGES

TOM BENSONthe "powerful and at times polarizing" owner of the Saints and Pelicans, died Thursday at the age of 90, according to Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE. Benson was admitted to Ochsner Hospital in mid-February and "remained there until the time of his death." Benson's condition "appeared to be improving in late February," but his health "took a downturn in recent days." Benson bought the Saints in '85 for $70M and was "hailed as a hometown hero." He went on to become one of the Louisiana's "most influential and controversial figures." To the team's fans, he was a "lightning rod, alternately praised for rescuing the Saints from marauding out-of-town interests and pilloried for his bottom-line management style and awkward public relations skills." The Saints' "magical run" to winning Super Bowl XLIV gave New Orleans its first major sports championship and marked the "pinnacle of Benson's mostly successful ownership tenure." His popularity "hit an all-time low" during the '05 season, when the Saints were "displaced to San Antonio because of Hurricane Katrina." While he "never publicly stated his intentions to move the team, his actions fueled speculation that he wanted to leave New Orleans." With some prodding from then-NFL Commissioner PAUL TAGLIABUE, Benson "brought the team back to New Orleans" in January '06. Benson in '12 was "inducted into the Saints Hall of Fame" and in '14 was "enshrined in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame." Benson also bought the then-Hornets (now the Pelicans) in '12 from the NBA for $338M, making him the "lone owner of both NFL and NBA teams" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16).

Benson's legacy as the Saints' owner was cemented with the team's Super Bowl XLIV victory
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

UP-AND-DOWN RELATIONSHIP: The AP's Brett Martel wrote Benson, with his "heavy New Orleans accent and parasol dances along the sideline" after wins cut "quite the figure among NFL owners when he first joined the league." His jovial game-day persona "turned hardheaded, however, when it came to business matters." Benson in '01 negotiated an unprecedented $187M in "concessions and state subsidies to keep his team playing" in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome through '10 -- a deal Benson deemed "necessary to succeed in small-market New Orleans." That lease was followed by "another unusual arrangement in which the state stopped paying direct subsidies to Benson, but committed to relocate numerous state offices in a Katrina-damaged office high-rise next to the Superdome" if Benson "rehabilitated the building, which is now called Benson Tower." Until recent years, fans "often questioned whether Benson’s desire for profit outweighed his loyalty to his native city" (AP, 3/15). In New Orleans, Lewis & Vargas note the Saints' on-field success during Benson's ownership "erased a bitter stretch in his relationship with his hometown, when Hurricane Katrina chased the Saints to San Antonio for a season and Benson talked openly about staying there rather than risking a return to a depopulated and wounded New Orleans and a badly battered stadium." Benson’s standing among local fans "improved even more during the Saints’ darkest moment since Katrina" -- BountyGate in '12. Benson did not fire coach SEAN PAYTON and GM MICKEY LOOMIS, as "many of his fellow owners reportedly felt he should have done" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16).

LOUISIANA'S FINEST: The TIMES-PICAYUNE's Duncan writes regardless of what people "think of Benson, there's no denying his place in Louisiana sports history." He "wasn't the father of professional sports in New Orleans," but he "most certainly was their good shepherd." The Saints and Pelicans "might not still be in New Orleans" without Benson. Through his "steady leadership and relentless competitiveness, he raised the standard for professional sports in this city." Benson "keenly understood the unique relationship between his team and the city" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16). In New Orleans, Rod Walker writes the cheers Benson got "every time his face was shown on the big screen of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome or the Smoothie King Center showed just how much he was adored by local sports fans." If it "weren't for Benson, neither team would still be" in New Orleans. He rescued them both when "some other city could easily have swooped in and taken them away." Benson "loved the NFL, and the NFL loved him back." The stadium at the Pro Football HOF in Canton was "named after him because" of his $11M donation in '14. He is also a "big reason New Orleans got a chance to host five Super Bowls since he bought the Saints" in '85 (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16). CBSSPORTS.com's Kevin Skiver noted when the NBA owned the Pelicans in '12, it "simply would have been a matter of filing the paperwork to move the team somewhere else." But Benson "wasn't going to let a move happen." The league owning a team is a "precarious situation" and Benson "righted the ship" (CBSSPORTS.com, 3/15).

Photo: NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE (l) and NEW ORLEANS ADVOCATE

LOVING THE BIG EASY: THE MMQB's Peter King wrote Benson "loved" the Saints, but "even more he loved the city of New Orleans." King: "When I think of Benson, in fact, I don’t think of his 33-year reign as Saints owner. I think of his impact on the city of New Orleans." Fans "cannot question his affection for where he was born and schooled" (SI.com, 3/15). New Orleans Mayor MITCH LANDRIEU said, "Tom was one of our great citizens. He was one of a kind. He was born and bred in the New Orleans way. ... His heart and spirit are all New Orleans, and we love him for it." Former NFLer REGGIE BUSH, who played five years with the Saints, said, "He was a true New Orleans native. I will always remember him for just dancing on the sidelines under the umbrella, because it was such an amazing moment to see the owner of the team celebrating a victory like we all should have been” (NFL Network, 3/15). A New Orleans ADVOCATE editorial states Benson was a man who was "much like New Orleans itself: resourceful, a bit unpolished, mercurial, with a flair for a good time" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16).

PAYING THEIR RESPECTS: NFL Commissioner ROGER GOODELL in a statement said, "Tom Benson's contributions to New Orleans and the National Football League were legendary. ... Tom loved New Orleans, where he was a generous and caring philanthropist. Within the NFL, he was a true leader among NFL owners." NBA commissioner ADAM SILVER called Benson a ''dear friend'' and said the ''loss of his authentic and unique presence will leave an enormous void" (USA TODAY, 3/16). Former President GEORGE H.W. BUSH said, “He really was ‘Mr. New Orleans,’ and we have no doubt Tom Benson is dancing in heaven tonight.” Bush "knew Benson from their days in Texas and sometimes attended Saints games with him" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16). Louisiana Gov. JOHN BEL EDWARDS called Benson a "Louisiana giant" who was a "very powerful advocate for the state" (New Orleans ADVOCATE, 3/16). Pelicans F ANTHONY DAVIS said that Benson "went 'above and beyond' to make sure the players were in a position to win" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16). Saints QB DREW BREES: "We know you will continue to watch over us all with that umbrella in your hand" (USATODAY.com, 3/15). 

GIVING BACK: The TIMES-PICAYUNE's Duncan examines Benson's charitable efforts, and notes Benson in '04 donated $2M to the Archdiocese of New Orleans for a senior center in St. Cecilia Parish in the "honor of his first wife, SHIRLEY." After Katrina, the Saints donated more than $1.2M to "local high school football programs, including a $550,000 grant to refurbish Pan American Stadium." The club also "gave $600,000 through the NFL Youth Football Fund to high school football programs affected by the storm." The Bensons "underwrote the construction of a football stadium" at the Univ. of Incarnate Word campus in San Antonio, which the school "named the facility Gayle and Tom Benson Field." Benson also was "particularly generous to the armed services." He donated $5M in '10 to "spur the funding" of a $20M cancer treatment complex at Ochsner Medical Center. The facility was "named the Tom and Gayle Benson Cancer Center in their honor."  Benson's $11M donation to the Pro Football HOF is the "largest gift in the history of that institution." Benson's donations also "funded a major renovation of the Hall's Fawcett Stadium, which was later renamed Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium" (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 3/16).

NFL CMO DAWN HUDSON "plans to step down next month" after four seasons with the league in which she helped it "navigate crises such as domestic abuse," according to Alexandra Bruell of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Hudson, who previously served as PepsiCo President & CEO, said that she "plans to explore other, non-marketing opportunities." The move comes after MARYANN TURCKE was promoted to NFL COO to take over for the departing TOD LEIWEKE. Hudson said that she and Commissioner ROGER GOODELL agreed upon her arrival in September '14 that she "would only stay for a handful of seasons." She called Turcke's promotion a "natural breaking point" for her and the league. Hudson: "She deserves someone who will be in it for the long-term with her. That wasn't going to be me." The NFL will "conduct a search internally and externally" to find a replacement. Bruell notes Hudson helped the NFL "tackle various crises, from accusations of domestic abuse involving players to studies linking football with long-term brain injuries." She also was "behind various campaigns meant to bring 'humanity' to the NFL brand." Those include "Super Bowl Babies," a "humorous spot that shows babies dressed up as football legends," as well as the election-inspired "Inside These Lines" (WSJ.com, 3/16). The departures of Hudson and Leiweke come after Exec VP/Communications JOE LOCKHART and Senior VP/Communications NATALIE RAVITZ "left last month" (ESPN.com, 3/16).

Edwards is leaving his position as Brand President immediately and will retire from the company in August
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Nike has "received complaints about inappropriate workplace behavior" and Nike Brand President TREVOR EDWARDS "has resigned, setting off a management shuffle" at the company, according to Sara Germano of the WALL STREET JOURNAL. Edwards, seen as a potential successor to Chair & CEO MARK PARKER, will "leave his position immediately and retire from the company in August." In an internal memo to staff announcing the departure, Parker "disclosed that the company in recent weeks had received reports of 'behavior occurring within our organization that do not reflect our core values of inclusivity, respect and empowerment.'" Parker "didn’t specify the nature of the complaints or whether they involved" Edwards or other execs. A Nike spokesperson said that there were "no allegations against" Edwards. Parker said that Nike was "conducting a review of the company’s human-resources systems and practices for elevating internal complaints." As part of the management shake-up, Parker said that he "now planned to remain" in his current position beyond '20. In his memo, he said he was reorganizing the leadership to “allow for closer management and a sharper focus on our culture.” Germano notes Edwards joined Nike in '92 as a regional marketing manager and "worked his way up the leadership ranks." He is "credited with championing Nike’s push into fitness tracking." He has been in his current position since '13 (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 3/16). Parker said that the company will "create a mandatory training program for managers, and he directed staff to hotlines and email addresses to report issues confidentially." In Portland, Mike Rogoway notes Nike promoted President of Geographies & Sales ELLIOTT HILL to "president of the company's consumer and marketplace group." MICHAEL SPILLANE "will remain" President of Categories & Product. Both Hill and Spillane "will report to Parker" (Portland OREGONIAN, 3/16).

CONFUSING SITUATION: Edwards will "stay on board at Nike as an advisor to Parker until his retirement in August" (BIZJOURNALS.com, 3/15). CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin noted that decision has resulted in "some head scratching going on." Sorkin: "If he’s leaving today but he’s retiring in August, what’s happening between now and August?” CNBC’s Becky Quick said there was either “something he did wrong and he should leave, or he didn’t do anything wrong and he shouldn’t leave.” Sorkin: “It’s confusing” (“Squawk Box,” CNBC, 3/16).

Free agent DT NDAMUKONG SUH has listed his home in the Coral Ridge neighborhood of Ft. Lauderdale for $7.29M. Suh purchased the home in July '15 for $6.5M after signing with the Dolphins earlier that year. The six-bedroom, contemporary-style house was built in '13 and sits on about half an acre "fronting the Intracoastal Waterway" (SUN-SENTINEL.com, 3/13)....Former NBAer CARLOS BOOZER is selling his home in Pinecrest, Fla., for $2.95M. The 6,840-square-foot Mediterranean house has "seven bedrooms" and 8.5 bathrooms. Boozer purchased the home in January '12 for $1.8M and then "renovated the house," investing at least $1M. The home features "professional-grade Sub-Zero, Miele and Wolf appliances; high-impact PGT windows" and a "16-camera, state-of-the-art security system" (SUN-SENTINEL.com, 3/12).

FEVER PITCH: Former MLBer C.J. WILSON has sold his home in the Beverly Crest neighborhood of L.A. for $16M. Set on more than three acres, the house was built in '16 and was most recently listed for $19.995M. The home has "five bedrooms, eight bathrooms" and roughly 10,000 square feet of living space. Among the living spaces is a "chef's kitchen with smokeless hibachi grills." On the property is a "four-car garage" (LATIMES.com, 3/9)....Former MLBer AUBREY HUFF has listed his home in San Diego for $4.345M. The Mediterranean-style "five bedroom, six-and-a-half bath property" spans 8,114 square feet" (MERCURYNEWS.com, 3/13)....Former MLBer JERMAINE DYE has listed his home in the Santaluz golf community of San Diego for $4.4M. Built in '10, the house includes a "theater room" and has "five bedrooms and 6.5 bathrooms." The interior is "Italianate in style." On the grounds is a "putting green and a fire pit" (LATIMES.com, 3/15).

BUYERS & SELLERS: Bears offensive coordinator MARK HELFRICH sold his home in Eugene, Ore., for just under $2.4M. The 7,179-square-foot home sits on 10 acres located in the "secluded Diamond Ridge" and includes an "indoor sports court plus a covered patio and swimming pool" (OREGONLIVE.com, 3/8)....Former NFLer CHRIS ZORICH has listed his home in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago for $769,900. Built in '14, the "five-bedroom" home is "located just a block from the Chicago River." The 4,500-square-foot house has "4 1/2 baths" (CHICAGOTRIBUNE.com, 3/12).

Pheiffer joined Minnesota United in '17 after spending 10 years working in the MLS league office
Photo: bryant pfeiffer

Saturday is the MLS home opener for Minnesota United, which means St. Patrick's Day plans for Senior VP/Sales & Strategy BRYANT PFEIFFER will naturally revolve around the game against the Fire at TCF Bank Stadium. Pfeiffer, who joined the club last May after more than 10 years at the MLS league office, is helping take the lead on not only transitioning the team into its future home at Allianz Field, but also making sure it capitalizes on a the inaugural season by continuing to establish the club's footing with fans. Pfeiffer spoke to THE DAILY about the club's aspirations in Year 2, how he prepares for the season opener and how he'll celebrate once the match is in the books. 

BALANCING ACT: We have a massive amount of preparation for Saturday around organizing our staff for game-day duties, and then simultaneously we have another significant workstream going towards our move to Allianz in ’19. We’re going through the process right now where we’re relocating season-ticket holders to their seat locations at the new field. About 10 days ago, we opened up an experience center inside our offices that showcases what it will be like at the new venue. Right now our staff has given over 220 tours just in the last week-and-a-half. It’s been crazy, we’re wearing a lot of hats, and Saturday we’re expecting a standing-room only crowd. This comes after last weekend when a few of us, including CEO CHRIS WRIGHT, went down with the team to our road game in Orlando. We spent two days meeting with Orlando City’s execs to get a real behind-the-scenes tour of their stadium to get some late insight on how they made it work.

OPEN THE DOORS: Saturday I’ll try to get up before the day really gets going and play some pickup soccer with my local men’s league group at 7:00am. Then it’s down to the stadium. We have a huge pre-match reception where we’re gonna have over 200 guests -- from part of our ownership group, sponsors, prospective partners, local execs from the other sports teams in town -- to properly kick off the season. Then our supporters are facilitating a pre-game march to the match and we have one of our partners, Surly Brewing, doing a morning brunch hospitality event, which is very popular. That takes us into the 1:00pm kickoff.

GAMEDAY ROUTINE: In between visiting all these receptions pregame and meeting with fans in the concourses, I’ll be trying to say hello to my family a little bit at some point to check in. We’re anticipating temperatures of about 50 degrees and sunny, which is always important to note this time of year in Minnesota, because last year, we had our famous snow blizzard for over 30,000 fans at our inaugural MLS game. Hopefully we get our second straight win and then we’ll have a postgame party scheduled for our staff to celebrate. Then I’m racing home as I’ve got twins who are turning 13 this weekend. My son BRYCE has his party Saturday night at the house and that will probably feature plenty of NCAA Tournament viewing with his buddies. Sunday, my daughter LINDSAY will have all her friends over to celebrate, and I’ll again be sneaking peaks at my bracket during that as well.  

MINNESOTA SPORTS SCENE: It's a good time for us because there is just a huge carryover in Minnesota sports right now. The Vikings had such a memorable playoff win over the Saints, then we went right into Minneapolis hosting the Super Bowl, where they really transformed the city into a winter wonderland. Now we look at our other friends in town with the T’Wolves and Wild contending for playoff spots and there's good vibes all across the state.

IN THE MEANTIME: When there is free time, I love to get a workout in and especially play either pick-up basketball or soccer. I’m still game to chase some of the young guys around. Outside of that it's really just about spending time with my family any time I can. 

Esports organization Immortals has created a mobile gaming division, hiring veteran mobile esports exec JEFF CHAU as GM. He will report to CEO NOAH WHINSTON and President & COO ARI SEGAL. As its first entry into a mobile game, Immortals also signed an “Arena of Valor” team that will compete in a $500,000 prize pool Arena of Valor World Cup in July (Ben Fischer, Staff Writer)....The Orioles named SCOTT LEWIS VP/Strategy & Analytics. Prior to his previous stint outside of sports, Lewis had stops with MLS, MLB and the NBA (Orioles)....East Carolina Univ. named DAVE HART Special Advisor to the Chancellor for Athletics. Hart also previously served as AD at Florida State and Tennessee (ECU).

Do you have an executive announcement? If so, please send to editorial@sportsbusinessdaily.com.

 

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Sowers was retained by the 49ers for the '18 season after joining the team last year
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

In S.F., Ann Killon profiled 49ers assistant coach KATIE SOWERS, who last year became the "second woman to hold a full-time coaching job in the NFL and the first openly gay NFL coach." Sowers appeared this week on a panel at San Jose State’s Institute for the Study of Sport, Society & Social Change, "sharing her remarkable story." While coaching fifth grade girls basketball in K.C., one of her players was the daughter of former Chiefs GM SCOTT PIOLI. The two "became friends, and Pioli learned of her football background." He became Falcons assistant GM in '14 and "brought her as an offseason assistant and scouting intern." She got to know offensive coordinator KYLE SHANAHAN, and after he became the 49ers coach, he "hired Sowers as part of the Bill Walsh Minority Fellowship." The team has retained her for the '18 season (S.F. CHRONICLE, 3/16).

EXECUTIVE PICKS: Former President BARACK OBAMA's NCAA Tournament bracket predictions were posted on the Obama Foundation's website and Obama "tweeted his brackets as well." Obama picked Michigan State to win the tournament. Fellow former President GEORGE H.W. BUSH "countered Obama's selections with his own via Twitter." Bush selected Texas A&M to win the tournament. Obama replied: "41: I like the competition. And the loyalty to the home team - 44" (ESPN.com, 3/15).

NAMES: Former Univ. of Minnesota-Duluth women’s hockey coach SHANNON MILLER was legally ruled the “target of discrimination and retaliation by her former employer” and was “awarded $744,832 in lost wages and benefits,” as well as $3M for emotional distress (STARTRIBUNE.com, 3/15). Steelers WR JUJU SMITH-SCHUSTER joined rappers DRAKE and TRAVIS SCOTT to play the videogame “Fortnite,” on Twitch streamer TYLER BLEVIN’s channel. Blevin drew a “record-breaking 600,000 views” while playing with the celebrities (NYPOST.com, 3/15).

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