Benson named Headliner of Year for New Orleans efforts

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKERNew Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, left greets Saints and Hornets owner Tom Benson on Thursday for the announcement that the Hornets will change their name to the Pelicans for next season.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKERNew Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, left greets Saints and Hornets owner Tom Benson on Thursday for the announcement that the Hornets will change their name to the Pelicans for next season.

If there were any doubts about Tom Benson’s commitment to New Orleans, they should’ve been put to rest in April. That’s when Benson was approved as the new owner of the New Orleans Hornets.

The NBA had taken over the Hornets in late 2010 when founder George Shinn could not find a suitable buyer.

It wasn’t the first time Benson stepped up to save a popular New Orleans landmark. In 1985, when no local buyer was interested in purchasing the Saints, Benson took over ownership, and the franchise has flourished since, winning its first Super Bowl in 2009.

Benson has been one of the leaders in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

For his efforts in saving the Hornets, re-developing the area around the Superdome and backing the NFL in its Bountygate investigation, Tom Benson has been selected the 2012 Louisiana Sports Writers Association Headliner of the Year.

Benson edged New Orleans native and Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning in voting by members of the LSWA. Finishing third was the success of midmajor football schools in Louisiana in 2012, as Louisiana-Lafayette and Louisiana-Monroe each earned bowl bids, while Louisiana Tech threatened to crash the BCS for much of the season. The John Curtis football team finished fourth after winning its 25th state championship and becoming the first Louisiana school to finish No. 1 in the USA Today national rankings.

“This is a tremendous honor to be named Headliner of the Year for 2012, and I am thankful to the Louisiana Sports Writers Association for their recognition,” Benson said.

Benson’s purchase of the Hornets came days after the NFL suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season, General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely. The NFL said it had evidence of a pay-for-performance plan that is against league rules.

Without Payton, the Saints struggled and finished 7-9.

“We experienced a tough year with our Saints in 2012, but what was evident was our tremendous fan support and great TV ratings promoting our city and our region,” Benson said. “That is very important to us, promoting our great city and region, and our fans do it better than anyone.”

Benson’s commitment to New Orleans was questioned after Hurricane Katrina. With the Superdome severely damaged like much of the city, speculation centered on Benson moving the franchise to San Antonio, which was hosting the team while New Orleans recovered. San Antonio was Benson’s second home and where he made his fortune as an auto dealer.

With the NFL’s support, the Superdome was completely renovated and will host its seventh Super Bowl on Sunday. The area surrounding the Mercedes-Benz Superdome also has Benson’s fingerprints all over it. There is Benson Tower, Champions Square and the New Orleans Arena, which is home to the Hornets, who will become the Pelicans for the 2013-14 season.

“I was born and raised in New Orleans and went to Texas and made a few dollars,” Benson said when introduced as the new owner of the Hornets. “It looked like the Saints were going to leave New Orleans. … They ended up becoming a good football team … and ended up being good for New Orleans. This is what’s going to happen with (the Hornets/Pelicans).

“We expect this club to be one of the most outstanding clubs in the league; otherwise I don’t want to get involved. This is just a good thing, and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern cited Benson’s deep roots and affection for New Orleans in the same news conference.

“The city is one of the country’s treasures, and we really have found the perfect owner,” Stern said. “Our goal all along has been to get the Hornets bought by somebody whose commitment to New Orleans would be unrivaled.

“Tom’s history of success in sports is well known. The fact he was born and raised in New Orleans and done such a spectacular job with the Saints made him, in my view, the ideal owner of the NBA franchise in New Orleans. He’s deeply invested in the rebuilding of New Orleans post-Katrina.”

And his investment keeps paying off for the city and for Louisiana.