The most recent picture SB Nation has of Rita is from the Saints-Lions playoff game back on January 7. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Jeff Duncan's Sunday column from the Times-Picayune/nola.com notes Rita's absence from recent Saints/Hornets events and springboards from that into some anonymously-sourced reporting, or column-writing, or supposing.
I'm not sure what to call it exactly, but it seems that things may not all be hunky-dory in Rita's ascent to the throne of the Benson Empire.
Amid the pomp and circumstance of Tom Benson's purchase of the New Orleans Hornets, one question remained unanswered.
Where was Rita?
Duncan observed that she wasn't at the Hornets' sale news conference in New York last week, nor was she at the Hornets-Grizzlies game last Sunday. She was also absent from the first Benson-Hornets news conference at the New Orleans Arena.
Make the jump for the rest of the story, or column, or investigative report, or recap from the latest "Game of Thrones" episode (minus the swords and sorcery and sex and dwarves)...
The Saints were officially silent on the matter, but some of Duncan's insider sources told him that in a manner of speaking, Baby's being put in a corner...
Multiple sources, however, say LeBlanc is serving some form of unofficial paid administrative leave, imposed by Benson.
Wait, what? I agree with Duncan that this is big news, and look, tongues are wagging all the way to the state capitol:
As the executive in charge of the club's sales, marketing and community affairs, LeBlanc's absence at major business events has raised eyebrows around town and in the pro sports industry. Word of her absence has spread in local business circles and reached Baton Rouge, where it's been the topic of discussion among state legislators.
Here's where the "poor little rich girl" angle comes into play, along with some other personnel issues (emphasis added)...
Colleagues and co-workers are quick to compliment LeBlanc for her intelligence, creativity, energy and good taste. However, they're also just as quick to note her lack of focus and abrasive management style, citing the estimated 30 assistants she's gone through in her six-year tenure. She's developed a reputation for stalling projects internally, at Benson Tower and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Her penchant for drivers and world travel has irked colleagues and caused some to question her commitment to the job.
Some close to Benson say LeBlanc's sense of entitlement has been a source of conflict with her grandfather, a self-made billionaire from the hardscrabble 7th Ward who shuns the spotlight and still routinely clocks six-day workweeks.
"She's smart and has talent -- but she's just all over the map," said one source, who has worked with LeBlanc. "I think she really enjoys the glitz and glamour of being the owner, but she doesn't really roll up her sleeves and get into the business side of it."
Duncan then goes into a succession of team events that she has either attended or missed, and wrote of her not spending much time at the office.
Since shortly after Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, LeBlanc has not worked regularly out of her office at the club's Metairie training facility and has visited the facility just a handful of times.
Oh, really? What else?
She hasn't attended either of the latest meetings for the New Orleans Super Bowl Host Committee, on which she serves as an executive board member. She also missed a pair of planning meetings with Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District officials about Champions Square, one of her pet projects. She's also missed meetings of the executive boards of the Business Council of New Orleans and GNO Inc., according to members of the groups.
She has attended a few events in an official team capacity. She was a speaker at the Sports Analytics Conference at MIT in Boston in early March, an event she had committed to well in advance. She also attended the star-studded "A Night to Make It Right" gala, a fundraiser for Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation, which attracted a fleet of A-listers including Ellen DeGeneres, Drew Brees, Rihanna, Sean Penn and Josh Brolin. She also attended the NFL owners meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., last month.
He then contrasts this record with a statement from owner Tom Benson:
"Rita is being prepared to take over for me, and that's why she's attending all of these things," Benson said through team spokesman Greg Bensel. "In five years, I'll be 90 years old."
But the fact that the head of the club's business operations wasn't involved in the largest transaction in franchise history indicates a clear diminishing base of power.
And reviews parts of her rise with the club and the resulting expanding national media profile.
Not long ago, she was being hailed as a rising star in the sports business world. Portfolio magazine and ESPN.com wrote glowing profiles after she was strategically positioned as the face of the franchise in the initial months of the club's return to post-Katrina New Orleans.
When the Saints announced their 2006 schedule at a news conference outside the Superdome, it was a 29-year-old LeBlanc who addressed the media alongside NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
When the Dome reopened Sept. 25, 2006, she, not Benson, addressed the reporters in attendance.
Street and Smith's SportsBusiness Journal's featured her on its annual "40 Under 40" three times. NBC's "Today Show" profiled her before the 2010 season kickoff game against the Green Bay Packers, referring to her as "one of the most powerful women in professional sports and the youngest, sassiest and sexiest owner of an NFL franchise."
Despite her official position with the club, he notes the emergence of Dennis Lauscha, the team's executive VP and chief financial officer...
But anyone who's done business with the Saints knows Lauscha has emerged as the go-to person. He makes the decisions and the deals, and it looks like that will be the case with the Hornets as well.
Duncan closes with some framing of the issue while reminding us that we don't know exactly what this means...
In the long run, her three-month hiatus could be the best thing for LeBlanc and consequently the Saints.
She can still be the first lady of New Orleans football. But she'll need to change her ways to regain the mantle.
This could be nothing more than a timeout careerwise. Or it could be something much more serious.
* * *
More interesting goings-on for the Saints in an offseason already rife with interesting goings-ons. We'll just have to wait and see how this all plays out, I guess. Are there any captains of industry out there in CSC-land with a self-built empire who have dealt with a succession of power like this before? If so, we'd love to hear from you...