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When Tom Benson passes away, the Saints best ownership option is banned

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The Benson family has been feuding over Saints and Pelicans franchise ownership. The Saints’ best chance at moving into the next phase could be public ownership, but a little addition to the NFL Constitution over 50 years ago presents an impossible hurdle.

NFL: Oakland Raiders at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most impactful aspects of the Saints organization has nothing to do with football itself. For two and a half years now, the Saints’ multiple 7-9 seasons have actually troubled some anxiety ridden fans less than the instability of the team’s current ownership.

Since December 2015, it’s been well documented that Saints owner Tom Benson was embroiled in a multi-state legal feud with his estranged daughter Renee and grandchildren Rita and Ryan LeBlanc. On the Louisiana state civil level, the heirs argued that Tom Benson was not mentally fit to make the decision to cut them out of non-controlling ownership shares in the Saints and Pelicans franchises.

On the federal level, the Benson patriarch reached a settlement with the heir’s trustees that remains confidential. More importantly, the settlement does NOT preclude the heirs from contesting Benson’s will after his death. So basically, we don’t know what the heirs got in that settlement with regard to the Saints and Pelicans, and the heirs can go after Gayle’s stake as soon as Benson dies.

For Saints fans, this settlement offers zero trust and support in a future without Tom Benson. The aging owner may have settled in order to avoid testifying in court and risking the reputation of his current mental health status. But, maybe more likely, Benson didn’t want to go to trial for a different reason altogether.

Sensitive financial information regarding the Saints and Pelicans organizations would have been made public during the trial. The public would have, for the first time, been privy to what kind of deals the teams are getting to play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and Smoothie King Center, in addition to more transparent reports on different revenue streams for the franchises.

Professional sports team owners do not want the public seeing the finances of their franchises. Why? They don’t want the public to see how much money they are making while often at the same time shouldering much of the financial risk on the public who reside in their market.

Jonathan Tjarks from mic.com wrote back in 2011, “As a result of this imbalance between public risk and private profit, the entire system of professional sport ownership in America has become little more than an elaborate slush fund for some of the country’s wealthiest individuals.”

All too often, major cities have had to pay for their team’s stadiums to be built or renovated. In fact, over the past two decades, local municipalities have forked over nearly $15 billion for stadium builds and renovations across the NFL, MLB, and NBA.

Charlotte, N.C. spent $260 million on the Bobcats new stadium while the total value of the entire franchise is only a fraction more at $281 million. With a price tag of $1.2 billion for the new Yankee Stadium, the city of New York should absolutely own the team, not the Steinbrenners.

But only one professional team in America is owned by the fans who support it, the Green Bay Packers. After falling on rough times in the early 1920s, Packers ownership decided to sell shares of ownership (then $5/share) to the public in order to stay afloat.

And almost a century later, the Packers aren’t just staying afloat; they are the 13th most valuable NFL franchise ($2.35 billion) and reel in an average of $553 per fan. The Saints, meanwhile, are the 21st most valuable NFL franchise (around $1 billion) and net an average of $77 per fan.

I’ve been in love with the Packers’ business model for a long time, and have wished the Saints could follow in their footsteps. How can the country’s smallest market boast some of the greatest profits while simultaneously keep ticket prices reasonable and beer affordable ($5.25 per brew)? The answer my friends is non-profit public ownership.

In 2011, when the Packers needed to renovate Lambeau Field, instead of threatening to leave town like some owners have, they simply released more ownership stocks for sale, and this time they flew off the shelf at $250 a share. They easily raised the funds needed for the project, and the Packers corporation now consists of 360,760 stockholders, who collectively own 5,011,558 shares of stock.

No share holder can own more than 200,000 stocks, however, as this protects against an entity becoming a majority owner and therefore more powerful decision maker. The Green Bay bylaws also state that if the franchise is ever sold, all proceeds must be distributed to local charities.

Unlike most franchises where the majority of the profits don’t benefit the market in which they exist, the Packers’ profits are re-invested into the franchise and the city of Green Bay. 60 percent of their concession sales are guaranteed to local charities. The organization is run to better serve the interests of its fans and the local community.

Most Lambeau Stadium workers are volunteers, and when there has been heavy snow, the franchise simply puts a call out for shovel helpers and fans come out in droves to prepare the stadium for game day.

The shareholders receive no dividends, no profits if the team is ever sold; and besides bequeathing your share to an immediate family member, the only real perk of being a shareholder is a sweet proof of ownership paper, access to exclusive shareholder merchandise, and a ticket to the infamous annual shareholders meeting at Lambeau Field.

This almost imagined value of being a Packer fan/owner is what makes this model so successful. I sincerely feel the Saints could cultivate a similar imagined value if only the fans were given more ownership over the team they so tirelessly support. When Benson dies, Saints fans should rally together and picket Commissioner Goodell’s office to remove Article V, Section 4 in the NFL Constitution.

The “Packer Rule”, which states “charitable organizations and/or corporations not organized for profit and not now a member of the league may not hold membership in the National Football League,” was added to the constitution in 1960 by former commissioner Pete Rozelle.

The league knew how dangerous the Packer model was for the disgustingly rich owners of the other franchises. The NFL doesn’t want the balance of power to tip away from ownership by the few to ownership by the masses.

The model may not work in all markets, but I certainly think New Orleans in many ways is the best suited for public team ownership. We may be a small market, but our fans are absolutely rabid for the Saints. My fandom started out as a volunteer beer seller in the Dome while I was still in college at Loyola University. We have the volunteer power and fan interest to run many of the operations on game day.

Could you imagine if the Saints released shares of ownership to the public instead of remaining majority owned by the Benson family? If people were willing to pay $50 for a Saints Super Bowl license plate, I bet they’d jump at the chance of owning a tiny part of their team for $250 a share.

Could you imagine if 60 percent of the Superdome concessions went to local non-profits and charities like the Gulf Restoration Network, Tipitina’s Foundation, Common Ground Relief, The Musician’s Clinic, Learn to Live, The Youth Leadership Council, Lift Louisiana, and New Orleans Bulldog Rescue? There are hundreds of charities in the greater New Orleans area alone. NFL franchise profits should flow back into the communities that support them.

When Tom Benson passes away, all bets are off Saints fans. Article V, Section 4 in the NFL Constitution says the Saints can’t adopt the Packer business model. But the league softened their rules on end zone celebrations this past offseason. Maybe they can rethink the whole non-profit publicly owned franchise thing too. A fan can dream can’t she?