Baseball and AI take center stage at Silicon Slopes Summit

Sports and technology go hand-in-hand, conference speakers say

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) From left, Entrata CEO Adam Edmunds, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Larry H. Miller Company CEO Steve Starks speak on the efforts of Big League Utah during the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Delta Center, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

What does baseball have to do with Utah’s tech industry? Plenty, according to several of the speakers at the Silicon Slopes Summit, the two-day tech conference that concluded Thursday in Salt Lake City.

Sports were a consistent theme of the summit, which marked its eighth year — a marriage of some of Utah’s oldest pastimes and its burgeoning new industries. It helped, perhaps, that the conference was held in the Delta Center, home of the Utah Jazz. Both the space and the team now are owned by Qualtrics co-founder Ryan Smith.

Several speakers said tech has the potential to elevate Utah’s sports scene, and both are seemingly bottomless wells of economic opportunity.

For example, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall told the summit crowd Thursday that bringing Major League Baseball to the city is a “home run.”

“This is about sports,” Steve Starks, CEO of the Larry H. Miller Company and former Jazz president, said in a conversation with Mendenhall about a potential MLB expansion. “It’s also about economic development. It’s about lifting the community, about connecting that west side.”

Salt Lake City is vying for its own MLB team, a campaign that launched in May.

Mendenhall, Starks and Entrata CEO Adam Edmunds devoted their half-hour session to discussing why Salt Lake is the right place for an MLB expansion, and their talking points echoed some of the same things the state has said about its tech industry: Utah is in a growth spurt; another professional sports team would enhance and further diversify the state’s economy; it’s good for business. An MLB team is a “natural evolution” in a rapidly evolving city, Mendenhall said.

Several of the summit’s sessions also focused on the symbiotic relationship between tech and sports.

Sports are America’s favorite pastime; technology has the power to bring them to more audiences, said ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro. Innovation in streaming services, combined with unique, audience-specific content, is the future of sports media, Pitaro said.

(Bethany Baker | Salt Lake Tribune) Reed Hastings, founder and executive chairman of Netflix, had some streaming advice for Qualtrics founder and Utah Jazz majority owner Ryan Smith: streaming is just the beginning.

It’s a lesson Smith has taken to heart already. His new media arm, SEG Media, announced a Utah Jazz streaming platform Wednesday morning, hours before Smith took the stage with Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to talk streaming.

“Your entry ticket is streaming,” Hastings advised Smith, “but you’ve barely begun. How do you have direct relationships with 3 million fans in Utah and 30 million people outside of Utah?”

“We have so many segments of Utah Jazz fans,” Smith responded. “We need a product for every single one of them.”

Hastings, who recently became a majority shareholder of Powder Mountain, said his version of the Utah ski resort will cater to the very audience seated in the Delta Center area: People looking for adrenaline, but also “reflection.”

“I’m trying to make it the premium place in the world for ‘being’ and ‘doing,’” Hastings said. “The ‘doing’ is obvious [skiing]; the ‘being’ is really important for us. I want it to be a place of reflection, beauty, and wellness.”

Hastings did not share any specifics about Power Mountain’s future. A formal announcement about the resort’s “next version” will happen next summer, he said.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, was the other big theme at this year’s summit. It is tech’s next frontier, several speakers said.

“I wish I could say something that wasn’t AI,” said Joanna Burkey, chief information security officer for HP Inc., when asked what she was most excited about. “But I can’t. It’s something we should be paying attention to.”

University of Utah President Taylor Randall teased a “massive announcement” about the university’s investment in AI coming in the next month, but did not reveal any details.

AI’s practical applications are immense, speakers said. Apostle David Bednar of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said he was excited about the technology’s potential to interpret languages in real-time.

“There are few things that would help the word of the Lord advance more rapidly,” he said.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Latter-day Saints Apostle David A. Bednar, left, said he was excited about technology's potential to reach people around the world during the Silicon Slopes Summit at the Delta Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2023.

Other speakers said they were taking cautious, measured approaches to integrating AI into their lives and businesses. Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the technology will likely help the airline with scheduling efficiency and customer service, but full integration will not happen for another few years.

“When you have a really big company — and Delta’s a really big company — you’ve got to be careful with what you mess with,” Bastian said.

Yahoo CEO Jim Lanzone said his company is staying “humble” about its role in AI’s development. Yahoo will not be a “creator or manager” of new AI models, he said, but will use AI to enhance the products Yahoo already offers, like Yahoo mail and, yes, even Yahoo Sports.

“It’s already deeply embedded in places like fantasy football,” Lanzone said.

Shannon Sollitt is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.