Gayle Benson's Billion Dollar Bet On Basketball Is Paying Dividends

Gayle Benson’s billion-dollar bet on NBA basketball is getting national attention and paying local dividends. The anticipation and expectations around the squad are at an all-time high, leading the ticketing team to call this The Golden Era in their sales emails. The New Orleans Pelicans will enter the season with the city’s best championship odds for a championship since Chris Paul led the Hornets to a Western Conference Semifinals Game 7 against the San Antonio Spurs.

Benson has also been getting NBA stipends for avoiding the luxury tax but those ownership dividends will end soon. The team has too much young talent and veteran leadership under contract through the next several seasons. In fact, this season marks the most expensive salary bill since New Orleans got a team 20 years ago. 

On the other hand, YouthForce NOLA is not getting NBA grant money without the Pelicans being in town. The Benson investment goes beyond the courts, though the local parks are a priority. Jaxson Hayes was on the Lafitte Greenway renovating a court, and that’s just the most recent example of a player giving back to the community. Almost every player has held a summer camp or given back to their hometowns in some way.

From facilities upgrades to coaching changes and contract extensions, Griffin has not been shy to ask for Benson’s money. All things considered, Benson has pushed the chips to the middle of the table, marking a billion-dollar bet that will make basketball relevant for generations to come.

Smoothie King Center Conversations

The lease on the SKC only covers the next two seasons without an extension with the state. Benson and the team’s executives as already looking at how to upgrade the Smoothie King Center until a new arena is built. The city will have a proper team, and the team will have a proper home for decades. Benson said earlier this spring that discussions on a long-term home are in the early stages. 

Benson explained the arena situation during NFL ownership meetings. “We’re talking about it, but we’ve been talking about it. Hopefully, at the right time, we’ll make that decision. But for now, we are working on renovating what we have” she said of the Smoothie King Center. 

These comments were made while renovations to the Superdome were underway. I’ve asked on multiple occasions and every time the team and state have expressed interest in tackling the SKC soon. The players have started noticing some changes already. Brandon Ingram complimented the fans after a sellout crowd cheered on a winning streak last spring. Ingram even asked the fans to keep it up after a March 27 home win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

Paying up for arena upgrades to make the fans and players comfortable in their home-court setting is one of the first steps to building up the culture. So is paying the players and keeping things affordable for the fans. Well, the SKC is one of the most affordable NBA nights out and is almost sold out of lower bowl tickets already. Fans want to see the most expensive basketball roster New Orleans has ever assembled.

Benson’s Paying Winning Wages

One must pay the costs to be the boss. There is no question about who the boss is as Benson covered the tab for the team and an eventual rebrand. Then she gave Executive Vice President David Griffin a blank check to build out the support systems and training staff. After three years on the job, Griffin is seeing a return on that investment. There were some early obstacles but his reputation and that of the franchise have been elevated in the last few months.

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In the NBA, an organization must pay the luxury tax to even fancy a chance at the NBA Finals. The Pelicans are a few million short of the luxury tax this year but it will be all but impossible to avoid once Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram’s contract extensions kick in and both are paid max-level money.

This is the most expensive roster in franchise history even when accounting for cap rises and inflation. The team is not quite above the tax threshold for the season but Benson has almost $480 million sitting in escrow to cover the contract guarantees already. Factoring in the extensions for Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III in a couple of years takes the team over half a billion over five years and pushes them into the luxury tax for the season.

The 2007-08 Hornets with Chris Paul had NBA Finals odds of +5000. They dropped to a near-favorite +1000 for the 08-09 season with Peja Stojakovic, David West, and Tyson Chandler but did not have the depth to make it out of the first round. Once the league took over ownership from George Shinn in 2011, the team was broken up.

Still, the team ranked no higher than 19th in total salary during that run thanks to Paul’s rookie contract. Usually, they were in the bottom third of the salary table and as low as 24th during Paul’s tenure. For reference, current broadcaster Antonio Daniels ($6.2 million) was the 4th highest-paid New Orleans player in 2008-09. 

These Pelicans with Benson at the helm are past that point in the process having already extended Williamson and Ingram. The 2009-10 Hornets brought in a $10 million Emeka Okafor as their big move to help Chris Paul, who was now making the most money. These Pelicans have signed Jonas Valanciunas ($14 million) and traded for CJ McCollum ($33 million) to pair with Williamson and Ingram.

The 2022-23 Pelicans are sitting around +4000 for an NBA Finals win by most sportsbooks but they are 17th on the salary standings thanks to a rookie-deal heavy cap sheet. However, the Pelicans are currently looking at a Top-5 wage bill next season going on current commitments.

Ownership has opened the checkbook and showed the highest level of commitment. The front office has stuck to the formula and is now looking at the first year of a championship window. The players have bought into the culture and helped create a locker room chemistry unmatched in Larry Nance Jr.’s career. And finally, the team landed on the right coach. 

Benson was still sending checks to Alvin Gentry when Griffin replaced Stan Van Gundy with Willie Green. It was a tough decision that costs millions but there was no second-guessing the trusted minds in the room. A year after biting that bullet, the Pelicans were shooting for a first-round upset of Chris Paul’s top-seeded Phoenix Suns.

Green was adamant that “You’ve gotta fight” to earn respect before you win in this league. From the front office all the way down to the floor crew, this team knows ownership is fighting, and paying, to help them do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Furthermore, looking through the community it is hard not to see Benson’s investment is paying off on and off the court. From remodeled parks to the Pels12 gatherings, Benson’s investments have helped make this a basketball city.

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