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The scenario seems implausible. Kid grows up rooting for the local NBA team, starts tech company in college, two decades later sells it for $8 billion and then a rare opportunity to buy that NBA team becomes available and he purchases it.
“It doesn’t happen,” Ryan Smith said. “Timing doesn’t line up.”
Meet Ryan Smith, a 42-year-old Utah native, and new owner of the Utah Jazz. He purchased the Jazz from the the Miller family, who had owned the team since 1985. NBA owners approved the sale on Thursday, and the parties completed closing financial transactions on Friday.
“Adam (Silver, the NBA commissioner) told me straight up when we called him,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports in a Zoom interview. “He said ‘Ryan, you’re fortunate enough in life to be part of the NBA in some capacity and that is pretty incredible. But there’s not many people in the world who get a chance to do this with their team.’ Truly that’s how I feel. It’s one thing to be a part of a team. To be able take over your team you grew up watching and cheering for, that’s not normal.”
The personal connection Smith has to the Jazz stems from his childhood and watching Jazz games on TV with his grandfather, who died about four years ago.
Ryan Smith is the CEO of Qualtrics and the new owner of the Utah Jazz. (Photo: Jazz handout/Photo courtesy of Utah Jazz)
“He was super instrumental in my life,” Smith said. “He loved everything about John Stockton and Darrell Griffith and Karl Malone and Hot Rod (Hundley). He loved just everything about the Jazz. That’s where I first got exposed. For me, it’s pretty personal, just that journey throughout with him.”
A team that belongs to the fans
Smith started Qualtrics, a leading online survey software company, in 2002 with his dad, brother and a friend. SAP purchased the company for $8 billion in 2018, and is planning to take Qualtrics public through an initial public offering possibly in early 2021. Smith will remain Qualtrics CEO.
Smith has also helped turn Utah into Silicon Slopes, a mountain version of Silicon Valley – albeit less expensive. There is a half-court basketball floor inside Qualtrics headquarters in Provo, and Smith likes to play each morning from 6-7 and then get home to help his children get ready for school before the workday begins.
“I told the NBA (owners) that I’ve been in a lot of negotiations and done a lot of pretty big deals but I’ve never been in a negotiation where it has been a three-party negotiation where one has been the buyer, one has been the seller and the other has been the community,” Smith said.
Smith has been a season-ticket holder and has been at most games the past five seasons with seats next to Greg Miller, the Jazz CEO who is the son of Gail Miller, the chairwoman of Larry H. Miller Group of Companies.
The Millers bought 50% of the Jazz in 1985 and the remaining half in 1986. They built a strong NBA franchise that competed for championships and appeared in the playoffs regularly. Since 1984, the Jazz have missed the playoffs just eight times.
The Jazz are a bedrock of the community. It’s difficult for some new NBA owners to understand a franchise as a public trust, something that “belongs” to the fans even if they don’t own it. Smith grasps that.
“I feel like the Millers at every single point have put themselves behind or let the community have the bigger seat in the room,” Smith said. “This should be the example of how I believe you transition a sports franchise of any kind where it’s truly a stewardship. They’ve said that for years which is often theoretical. But I’ll tell you it’s real. It’s practical, and I just couldn’t be more thrilled to take over for them and such an amazing organization.”
Smith poked around here and there to buy the Jazz previously including in February. “Gail was like, ‘We’ve had this in our family for 35 years and we’re going to keep it.’ That’s been the answer to the whole state of Utah. It’s almost like don’t even ask,” Smith said.
Smith looked at other opportunities, most notably the Minnesota Timberwolves. “At the end of the day, my wife (Ashley) reminded me as I was going down the road, ‘Ryan, what’s your plan here?’ You know we’re Jazz fans. This is what we do. This is what we do with our (five) kids. Even in February, I was kind of at a crossroads whether to go pursue another opportunity.”
But after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, perspectives changed.
“One thing led to another this summer where we actually were looking at another business opportunity,” Smith explained. “I had approached them about buying a small percentage of the Jazz and rolling that in (the deal). The thought from Gail was ‘If we were to sell a small percentage, we might want to sell the whole thing.’ I said, ‘What would compel you to do that?’ She said, ‘We would have to get an offer and we’d have to show it to our board.’ The reality is, is that I believe timing is everything. I know the Millers well. There’s a lot of confidence between us.”
A Utah kid committed to staying
The Millers are adamant the team remain in Utah, and that’s why Smith was the perfect buyer. But Qualtrics has an office in Seattle, instantly prompting Twitter speculation that he would someday move the franchise.
“Anyone who talks about that probably should be tuned out of social media all together because they don’t understand who I am,” Smith said. “Because anyone knows me definitely knows that I’m a Utah kid. I grew up watching the team. That’s what also gives the Millers a bunch of comfort.
“Utah’s given me everything. We were told we couldn’t build a tech company out of Utah, that we had to go to Silicon Valley. When I was taking venture capital in 2011, half the venture capitalists wanted us to move out of Utah. We’ve shown that we can win in Utah. That’s pretty exciting.”
Smith has had conversations with Jazz executive vice president of basketball operations Dennis Lindsey, general manager Justin Zanik and coach Quin Snyder. Smith, who had praise for all three, says he has a personable, approachable management style.
“Ryan has the unique ability to grow talent and to grow leaders,” said Mike Maughan, Qualtrics strategic initiatives, brand growth and global insights leader. “He doesn’t always have to pull them from the outside. That ability to grow leadership within his company and then give people the space to run, to learn, to make it safe to make mistakes so long as you’re learning, growing and dreaming big. That is the reason Qualtrics has gotten where it is.”
Smith said he knows Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and other owners. The question he has been asked most is what kind of owner he will be.
“Like there’s a menu of types of owners,” Smith said. “Well, how about I just be Ryan Smith. That’s easiest for everyone. I don’t have to try to be something I’m not. Let’s just do that.”
It’s a young ownership group. Smith’s two partners are in their early 40s. He prefers jeans, ballcaps and high tops. It’s another new breed of owners.
“As I come into the Jazz,” Smith said, “I’m just looking at what’s the fan experience like? What’s the player experience like playing in Utah? What is the community experience like? And what are we doing around community and social issues? I truly think there’s always opportunities to improve those. That’s where I’m going to focus.”