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Volume 21 No. 1
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Forty Under 40 Hall of Fame


There are few sports teams where the community liaison is a central decision-maker for the club. But then, the New Orleans Saints are not just any team, nor is Rita Benson LeBlanc just any community liaison.

The primary owner in waiting of the team owned by her grandfather, Tom Benson, LeBlanc’s principal role is to integrate the team into still-recovering New Orleans, ravaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. That event changed the team’s relationship with the city, ultimately transforming the club into a recuperative element in New Orleans’ recovery.

“Truly New Orleans is a unique experience. You can’t go through it and not have it change your life,” she said. “It is my personal calling and it fulfills me.”

LeBlanc oversees the business side of the team, and is spearheading efforts to develop land around the Superdome and is finishing the building’s renovation. But she graciously says she has top people working on these areas, whether it’s selling tickets or suites.

Instead, her fervor is New Orleans’ rebirth from destruction. She is a mayoral appointee to the New Orleans Business Alliance, a group tasked with recruiting businesses to the city. If there is a Saints event, charity event or any team appearance in the city or around the Gulf Coast, chances are LeBlanc will be there.

“People definitely do appreciate I do attend,” she said. “When people talk about three- and five-year plans, it’s usually about financial, but for us it is about the level of activity in the community.”

The metamorphosis for the Saints is remarkable. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the team seemed poised to use it as an excuse to bolt town. The image of the club, and ownership, lay in tatters.

“The team was reviled because it was viewed on its way out the door,” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant with close ties to the club. “Today that team is an annual sellout, they sell out of their sponsor inventory, their TV ratings are through the roof and they are considered one of the hottest properties in all of sports.

“Rita has been right at the forefront of these activities, especially partaking in community relations and team perception.”

Of course, winning last year’s Super Bowl, as well as making three playoff appearances in the last five years, helped in that turnaround. But the change has still been nothing short of remarkable.

There are some topics LeBlanc doesn’t want to talk about. After griping about the team’s playoff loss to the lowly Seattle Seahawks, calling it one of the worst of her tenure, she declined to say what the worst was.

“I wouldn’t want to name the team to give it any kind of credence,” she said.

But the Seahawks defeat is up there. So grating was the loss, LeBlanc canceled her annual birthday celebration with friends soon after the game.

And asked how a lockout would affect the team’s special status in the city, especially with players, she focused her response on the Superdome preparations.

LeBlanc, a member of the NFL’s international committee, could soon emerge as one of the next generations of family leaders in the NFL, following in the footsteps of football brand names like Hunt, York, Rooney and Mara.

“For me,” she concluded, “it is a family business, so it doesn’t turn old.”

Age: 34
TitleS: Owner and executive vice president
TEAM: New Orleans Saints
Education: B.S., agribusiness, Texas A&M University, 2001; certificate of international business, Mays Business School at Texas A&M
Family: Single
Career: Intern, Benson Automotive World, 1997; intern, New Orleans Saints, 1998; intern, NFL, 1999; intern, NFL Properties Publishing in Los Angeles, 2000; intern, NFL Films, 2001; joined the Saints in 2001
Last vacation: Super Bowl XLV — Dallas

What's on your iPod: Bruno Mars, Maxwell Church, Yael Naïm, Keith Urban, Terence
Blanchard, Brandon Flowers, Colbie Caillat,
Francesca Battistelli, Sigur Rós
Guilty pleasure: Online purchasing
Best stress release: Listening to the Rob Zombie station on Pandora
Pet peeve: People who say “can’t” or give an unsubstantiated “no”
Greatest achievement: Reopening the Superdome for New Orleans and the Gulf South on “Monday Night Football” in 2006
Fantasy job: Tandem paragliding instructor
Business advice: Be self-aware. Know thyself. Understanding one’s personal needs, separate from the expectations of those around us, is key to successful relationships.