Rita Benson LeBlanc does double duty by supporting both the team and the city she loves
Marketing the New Orleans Saints is just one of the many responsibilities of Rita Benson LeBlanc, owner and executive vice president of the team, but with the Saints’ marketing messages, her goal is also to inspire the city.
“So many New Orleanians follow our team and our example, we look to put out positive slogans for anyone to use. It’s not just about winning on the field,” says LeBlanc. The starry-eyed and hopeful “You Gotta Have Faith” slogan was scuttled for the post-hurricane assertion that “Winning Is an Attitude.” Last year, the slogan became even more determined with “Earn It.”
Since stepping into her prominent role after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita shook up the executive staff, LeBlanc has become a visible and powerful force for the franchise. In addition to overseeing marketing for both the Saints and the arena football team, the New Orleans VooDoo, she’s in charge of corporate sponsorships and suite sales, office administration, stadium operations, entertainment during the games, and community and youth programs. She also frequently attends meetings of NFL owners.
“I’m involved with both the micro and the macro,” she says. “There’s a lot going on in the NFL … collective bargaining agreements, the changing media landscape and so on. With the Saints, we’re trying to grow our business just like any other company.
Part of growing that business is being a big booster of the city, which comes naturally for LeBlanc. She’s a key member of the group Women of the Storm, which first formed after the 2005 hurricanes to encourage Washington leaders to view the destruction for themselves and keep recovery issues on the public radar. In that same spirit, LeBlanc says she pushes for NFL meetings to be in New Orleans as much as possible. “We want people to see what’s going on. After Katrina, a number of NFL owners made donations to the Saints Katrina fund. They’re a wonderful group to have engaged.”
Even though NFL executives are rivals on the gridiron, they frequently meet with one another. So how does LeBlanc, a woman in her early thirties, fit into this world? “I’d say I stand out more because of my age than because I’m a woman,” she answers, listing off some of her female peers who work with the Raiders, the Chargers and the Bills. “Women are somewhat of a minority in football, but we’re not the rarest thing in the world.”
LeBlanc wasn’t a sports nut growing up and admits to not being particularly athletic, but football has always been part of her life. Although she was born in Houma, she was raised in Texas where football is “everything.” And of course, her grandfather is Tom Benson, who bought the Saints in 1985. LeBlanc clearly remembers the excitement of the Saints games she first attended as a girl.
But football isn’t everything to LeBlanc. She is also passionately interested in the arts, travel and culture and describes herself as a big reader; one of her hobbies is collecting rare books. “A lot of the other NFL owners are big readers, too. They’re always asking what I’m reading,” she says. “Many of them tend toward history like I do.”
In contrast to other NFL owners, LeBlanc’s team is in one of the smallest markets in the league (although after Katrina, the official market for New Orleans was expanded to include more of the Gulf South). That means the Saints has to compete harder for fans’ disposable income and to stay in sponsors’ good graces. There aren’t as many companies here, so it’s a smaller corporate pool.
“Our sponsors, rightly so, are very demanding. We don’t aim just to deliver on contracts. We want to get creative and expand our relationships,” says LeBlanc.
For example, in the Saints’ partnership with Ochsner Health Systems, the Superdome is offering healthier food on game days. Fans are now able to find items like turkey dogs on whole wheat buns, chicken kabobs and grilled portobella mushrooms. The goal of the new food program is to help promote healthier eating habits in Louisianians while still staying true to locals’ high standards for cuisine.
“I’m really excited about it personally,” LeBlanc says. “On game days, it’s hard for me not to eat all the carbs and greasy stuff. I’m simply not the type of person who will hold back and not eat. It helps me out to have healthier options.”
The Saints organization is working to enhance the game-day experience in more ways, and every Sunday, fans will find some new improvements. New banners and drapes are being put up, the classic mascot Sir Saint has returned, and club rooms are being expanded.
Meanwhile, LeBlanc is always trying to showcase New Orleans. She brought in the Imagination Movers, a local music group with a show on Disney, to sing the national anthem on opening day. In arena football, ArenaBowl XXII was played in July at the New Orleans Arena. The championship team was the Philadelphia Soul, owned by rock star Jon Bon Jovi.
“We want to bring in more high-profile events. Now we’re working on the NCAA,” comments LeBlanc. “Each one brings in business and a positive outlook. Each successful event makes it easier to attract the next one.”