Gordon Monson: Why did the Millers sell the Utah Jazz? And why are they trying to get back in a new game?

The family’s decision to sell the Jazz came as a shock to many. Their choice to get back into major league sports may be less surprising.

(Larry H. Miller Company) The late Larry H. Miller was an avid softball player. His family says his love of the diamond has played a role in their decision to pursue a Major League Baseball franchise in Salt Lake City.

Gail Miller was doing what she could to watch her husband, Larry, twirl and whirl and hurl a softball, winding and windmilling the orb upward of 100 mph into the mitt behind home plate. When he pitched, softball wasn’t so soft. That’s what the man did from the circle in the middle of the diamond and also, metaphorically, from the circle in the center of his life. He got batters, opponents, competitors, out with two-seam fastballs, four-seam fastballs, drop-balls, risers, curves, drop-curves, rise-curves, floaters, junkers, the whole kitchen sinkers, with shrewd business deals, too, often outsmarting the other guys.

She observed the man sharpen his aim in their house, setting up a dartboard at the end of the hallway, then pacing back to a carefully measured spot, from where he fired darts underhanded at the target. There were bullseyes, and there were punctures all over creation.

Larry wasn’t just a pitcher. He hit and hit for power, finding comfort all around the field. The grass, the dirt, the sweat, the work suited him.

But the ballplayer’s wife had other concerns as she watched under so many sunny, high and twilight skies. Namely, making sure her rambunctious young kids didn’t run smackdab into the middle of play. She had the children’s safety in mind.

What was really happening, though, was something more profound, something unique to all kinds of ball — soft and hard — played on a diamond.

Intergenerational transmission.

The toddling members of the Miller family were learning from Mom and Dad to love what their parents loved. So much so that some five decades later, the Millers — old and young — are in the throes of working to own and operate a Major League Baseball team right here in Salt Lake City.

The thought of such a prospect, all these years later, 15 years after Larry’s death, Gail says, would be the fulfillment of “a lifelong dream.”

“Larry would be ecstatic about it,” says the woman who knew him best. “Baseball (and softball) was in his heart.”

Baseball, the Major League variety, is in a lot of Utahns’ hearts these days, eager as fans are to discover if Salt Lake will be picked for expansion, as one of a select handful of cities under serious consideration. MLB expansion hasn’t happened for a quarter of a century, and in that time, Utah’s capital city has grown up and out and all about. At the center of those possibilities are the Millers, former owners of the Utah Jazz, and the familial and financial engine powering a bid for inclusion at the top level of the national pastime.

Says Steve Starks, LHM CEO and head of Big League Utah, the coalition attempting to lure MLB to the state: “[They] want to operate one of the best franchises in baseball.” Does that mean paying big money to draw, say, Aaron Judge to play in Utah? Would it mean sacrificing what’s necessary to win pennants? Gail Miller seems a motivated individual.

Either way, Larry Miller and Larry’s love remain pumping pistons in that engine.

Selling the Jazz

OK, so exactly how much did Larry relish the smell of his leather glove, the aroma of the fresh-cut grass, the pop of a swinging bat? Well. He collected pieces of MLB memorabilia. He revered guys like Stan Musial and Willie Mays. He found pleasure and inspiration in what he thought of as America’s Game.

Moreover, he participated, involving himself in the aforementioned version of the game he could play — fast-pitch softball. Miller interrupted and changed the path of what would turn out to be an iconic automotive career, moving his family from Utah to Colorado in 1970, for one primary reason: So he could play high-level softball for Hagestad Volkswagen in Denver.

That’s right. He altered his own life, his family’s life, his car career, to play ball. His relationship to the game was echoed in the famous quote by former Yankees pitcher Jim Bouton, who said: “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

After eight-plus years of hardcore competition, he moved his family back to Utah, where he eventually opened Larry H. Miller Toyota and blasted down a professional path that saw him acquire not just what seemed like a thousand car dealerships around the country, but the Jazz, too, a story with which most around here are more than familiar.

(Larry H. Miller Company) The late Larry H. Miller was an avid softball player. His family says his love of the diamond has played a role in their decision to pursue a Major League Baseball franchise in Salt Lake City.

Larry Miller, indeed, saved the Jazz for Utah, risked his financial footing by buying the NBA team in separate payments in the 1980s when, in reality, he had no business and far too few resources to do so. He scratched together money, he borrowed the rest. And, as a result, he was immensely rewarded. He once said his greatest talent was his vision: “I see things other people don’t see.” He could see that Utah needed the Jazz and that that investment would pay off richly — but even he didn’t imagine the stacks of green that would come in equity growth.

While he was passionate about the Jazz and the team’s positive effect on the community, his other passion — Babe Ruth’s game — never abated. And that’s a large part of what pushes Gail Miller now.

Her family, led by her, the grand matriarch, but endorsed by sons Steve and Greg, and a couple additional generations, wants to brighten late Larry’s legacy by connecting MLB to Salt Lake.

The family sold what some thought it’d never sell, the Jazz, in 2020 for a reported $1.66 billion, and the next year their car dealerships also for more than $3 billion, looking for business opportunities elsewhere.

Gail has been asked a million times why she sanctioned such huge changes. The run-up to her response begins two decades back, when, in Larry’s last few years, she shadowed him, watching and learning how his mind worked, absorbing everything she could from the business icon. In the last number of months, she sat by the tub where Larry soothed some of his body aches soaking in the warm water, listening to his words. She did more than listen, she channeled his brilliance through the prism of her own wisdom, feeling the weight of responsibility to carry corporate wisdom and wizardry into the future, without the input of the dying master.

Carry it she did, organizing a new board of trustees for the multi-billion-dollar LHM Company, and eventually trailblazing a path without the Jazz, without the auto empire. She sensed a vulnerability in those endeavors and sought to diversify the company into a broader base of ventures, including the major acquisition and development of real estate, diving into such projects as Downtown Daybreak and now the Power District and also healthcare.

“When Covid hit, everything went dark,” she says. “We thought about what we could turn to in the future. It seemed sensible to look for other assets, what else we could get into. … I can see in my own way the future.”

As important as anything Gail Miller says these days, six words stand out: “I am not afraid of change.”

The time had come to focus on other things.

FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2017, file photo, Utah Jazz owner Gail Miller speaks during a news conference in Salt Lake City. The NBA's Board of Governors unanimously approved the sale Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, of the Utah Jazz to a group led by technology entrepreneur Ryan Smith, ending the Miller family’s 35-year run as owners of the franchise. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

“With the sale of all that, it allowed Gail to put more money into her foundation,” Starks says. " She didn’t want to wait on that. The family wanted to diversify for the second and third generations.”

As for the empty arena and, additionally, the empty theaters LHM owned, Starks says Covid “allowed us to talk about business differently. But we didn’t sell the Jazz for financial reasons. There wasn’t the need to ‘unload’ the team. The franchise was in sound condition.”

In fact, Starks says that LHM was offered $60 million in Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans from the government.

“We opted not to take it,” he says. “We didn’t need it.”

Instead, the proverbial corporate belt-tightening happened, with layoffs and numerous employees at various stages taking pay cuts.

Mixed into Gail’s not-afraid-of-change declaration now comes the sound of the bat’s crack, the crowd’s roar, all the sights and smells and memories of the ballpark, never fading for her, nor for her family.

They wanted, if they could, to get back into high-level sports, beyond steering the Triple-A Bees. What would be better than the Jazz?


“We owned the Jazz for 36 years,” Gail says. “We accomplished most of what we wanted to do, except for the championship. We enriched and brought unity to the community.”


A Major League Baseball team could take what the Millers did with basketball and amplify it more, she says. “We talked about baseball early after Larry passed away, but we knew it would stress us financially. It’s always been on the horizon. … It would show we are still stewards of sports and entertainment here. Long before we sold the Jazz, we were asking how we could do that. Baseball is in our DNA. We wanted to build on the legacy of the Jazz.”

It’s an expensive step forward — requiring billions of dollars, some from the Millers, some from other sources — the family leadership has more than bought into, unanimously working to make it a reality. That leadership meets weekly, every Tuesday, having put together the ambitious coalition headed by Starks to smooth details and adapt to evolving circumstances in order to make real Larry’s dream.

The family is counting on moving forward with its plans to develop the Power District on Salt Lake City’s west side with or without baseball, but, as Steve Miller says, it would be more complete, more certain with the presence of an MLB team and its ballpark in the middle of it.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dale Murphy, Governor Spencer Cox, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake City Council members, Jordan River Commission leadership, community council leaders, Rocky Mountain Power executives, and baseball players from the Westside, pose for a photo during a news conference on the Power District development on the west side of Salt Lake City including a possible Major League Baseball park, on Wednesday, April 12, 2023.

The Millers and LHM stand to make a hefty sum off the project, but, according to Gail, they want not only to share in economic benefits with other business owners, reshaping the city’s west side, but, even more, Gail insists she wants to leave a bright light of big-time sports and community connectedness for Salt Lake. That’s a major motive for the now 80-year-old hometown girl.

“We’re not just looking to line our pockets,” she says.

Hold the scoffs and the guffaws: For the Millers, this really is about more than just raking in acres of cash, although … let’s not be fools, business is business. It’s also about erecting a lasting monument and memories inside of MLB for a market that currently lacks that. They say they aim, just like Larry scoped in on that dartboard all those years ago, for an increased quality of life for the west side, the east side, the north side, the south side, and every side outside of those sides, and they are convinced baseball is the boulevard to that goal.

“Bringing MLB to Utah would enrich the community in the way other undertakings can’t,” says Steve Miller. “Now is the time for us to get it done.”

More specifically, their plan goes like this: Gain the favor of baseball owners, get their votes and a franchise, build a stadium in the heart of the Power District, facilitate and fertilize the ground in that area around the Jordan River for new housing, retail shops, hotels, restaurants, businesses of many kinds, and transform the section of Salt Lake between downtown and the airport into a vibrant living and entertainment space, anchored, if possible, by you-know-what.

(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.

The Millers announced last week they plan to invest more than $3.5 billion in the Power District. Meanwhile, the Utah Legislature is considering plans that could create another $1 billion in public funding for the project.

Steve Starks says the Millers are targeting private-public funding that makes sense. He said the public money the Jazz got for Delta Center’s renovation a few years ago was more than exceeded by the NBA All-Star Game that the renovation made possible.

“We’ve learned that stadiums don’t get done without private-public money,” he says. “.. We would never do a deal that didn’t have significant private capital put into it as well.”

Steve Miller is convinced that the land for the proposed ballpark in the Power District is as close to flawless as could be reasonably found.

“What a prime location,” he says. “Five minutes from the airport, five minutes from downtown. … All the renderings I’ve seen are super intriguing. If we execute on what I envision — you think of the Riverwalk in San Antonio, you’ve got the mountains in the background — how amazing it would be to re-beautify the Jordan River area. Think of one of 81 home games when the Yankees or the Red Sox are in town.”

Like a lot of baseball enthusiasts, he waxes philosophical, almost religious over the prospects of whiling away July and August nights in Salt Lake’s green cathedral, watching the boys of summer ply their trade, play their game.

Again, thinking … yeah, right, that sounds like a businessman working the crowd for the bennies his company would reap from such a project — Steve Miller is, after all, the chairman of the board of LHM — would be selling the man short.

He, like so many in his family, bleeds baseball.

“In my earliest years, I loved being at the park when my dad was playing,” he says. “We’d chase down foul balls with other kids and get a nickel for retrieving them. Then we’d hit the snack stand for something to eat.”

You don’t fake boyhood memories.

Greg Miller has them, too.

“I played Little League ball for four, five, six years,” he says. “Later, I played softball four nights a week. I pitched and played first base. I love baseball. In the late ‘80s, we were in L.A. for a Jazz playoff series, we went to Dodger Stadium to watch the Dodgers play the Reds. Since then, I’d say I’ve been to 100 major league games at 17 different stadiums.

“There’s always a moment I anticipate: When I get to the stadium, the moment my eyes see the grass, it’s like I’m in another dimension. Whatever happens here, I’m going to love it.”

One of Greg Miller’s favorite baseball memories is a simple one. He and his three sons were at a Yankees-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium. Together, they watched Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez on the vast verdant expanse of the outfield, warming up beforehand, playing catch.

“With each throw, Jeter took a couple of steps back,” he says. “Soon, they were throwing lasers back and forth. It was so effortless and beautiful.”

When Miller went to a World Series game this past year in Texas, he saw an old man having a wonderful time, laughing and carrying on, sitting in front of him, along with some 10 kids. “These are my grandsons,” the old man informed him.

Intergenerational transmission. The passing on of passion.

“I like the togetherness,” Greg Miller says. “That’s part of the enjoyment for me. I admire the reverence the current players have for the players who have gone before, the reverence for the history of the game. It’s visceral for me — all the patriotic stuff, the flyovers, the seventh-inning stretch. I love the unifying experience of 40,000 people all there.”

That’s one of the truthful selling points of MLB and its ballparks. They are gathering places where citizens, fans of both teams, can take in a stellar game, while reveling and relaxing in the atmosphere, with space between pitches to socialize.

Greg Miller says that’s what flips his switch now — the chance, and that’s all it is at this juncture, to bring that experience to the people of Utah. They did it with the Jazz, and now they want to take that up a notch with the national pastime.

“It’s what our family has been blessed to do … to do things that enrich the lives of many, to elevate the experience of all Utahns.”

Before Larry Miller passed away, he challenged the family to take risks, as Greg says it, “to make things better.” Bringing MLB to Utah, “rises to that standard.”

He further calls the notion, even the prospects of a notion, of owning a Major League Baseball team a “blessing, humbling and thrilling.”

The combo-pack of baseball and boosted business in the Power District energizes a sportsman/businessman like Greg Miller, but it is the baseball part that absolutely hooks him. He was one of the youngsters attempting to storm the field with Gail running from the stands to gather them in, back in Larry’s day.

The biggest question: How will they get it done?

All the Millers, along with Starks, have cultivated relationships with MLB owners and/or executives, getting acquainted with how they handle their business and concurrently attempting to make a favorable impression on them, as good partners, if SLC were fortunate enough to get a favorable vote. Many of those owners are aware of the Millers’ positive reputation lingering from their NBA ownership.

“We’re positioning ourselves as best we can to get a ‘Yes’ answer from the owners,” says Gail. “It’s important to be aligned, compatible with the other owners, to have the qualities they want to work with. You have to pass the muster to get the other owners to accept you. It’s an elite group of people.”

Already, Big League Utah has done studies and submitted comprehensive substantiation for its bid, including stats on population growth, economic firepower of the community, its commitment to baseball, as well as the “worthiness” of the ownership group led by the Millers and by Starks.

“I think we’ve done a good job of cultivating a good relationship with the league,” Greg Miller says. “We’ve been respectful, careful not to overstep, if you look at the whole package, we have an experienced ownership group, we’ve got a premier site, broad-based support in our coalition, the ability to get it financed, organizational expertise, and good values. … The list of teams we haven’t connected with is smaller than the list of teams we have connected with.”

Steve Miller is wildly hopeful, but careful about getting too crazy: “Meat’s not meat until it’s in the pan. I want to temper my enthusiasm, but I’m beyond cautiously optimistic.”

“It’s exciting,” Gail Miller says. “But it’s not all roses. There’s a lot of challenges. I see it as a wonderful challenge. It’s something we can do well — with the support we need. There’s no way we could do this alone.”

That required support includes government officials, community leaders, business owners and Utah residents.

She’s not a gambling woman, but Gail Miller says she feels confident about Salt Lake’s chances of landing a team: “I feel good about it. I wouldn’t say it’s a shoo-in, but we’re aligning ourselves in the right way. It looks good to me.”

And she guesses it would look good to a former softball pitcher/baseball junkie, a one-time NBA team owner and auto titan, the one who said he could see things other people couldn’t see. Could he see this? Could he see the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Dodgers and the Phillies, the Giants and the Cardinals rolling into Salt Lake’s own ballpark on Utah’s sweet and warm summer nights?

Maybe in his dreams.