The NHL is likely headed to Utah. Here’s how Jazz owner Ryan Smith became first in line for Arizona Coyotes

Smith, owner of the Utah Jazz and Real Salt Lake, had several things fall in his favor.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, on the red carpet before the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Friday, Feb. 17, 2023.

As soon as Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sat down for dinner after an NBA Board of Governors meeting last year, the state of Utah has been on hockey watch.

That meeting of the minds reportedly occurred in March 2023. Smith had just bought Real Salt Lake the year before, and was more than two years removed from buying the Utah Jazz.

So why does it seem like Smith came out of nowhere to actually have his dreams of the NHL in Utah potentially spoken into existence as early as next week?

“I think the fact that he’s been able to really accelerate discussions with Gary Bettman at the NHL level … shows the credibility that he’s had,” said Walter Franco, principal at Victus Advisors, a sports market research firm based in Park City. “Also, he’s been able to show the value that he would bring by being a member of that exclusive club.”

Multiple reports say Smith and the NHL have a deal in place to relocate the Arizona Coyotes, in which Smith would take over ownership of the club for a reported $1.2 billion price tag to the NHL. According to multiple reports, the team’s general manager met with players on Friday night after their game against the Edmonton Oilers to confirm the rumored relocation.

An official relocation announcement is expected next week, multiple reports say.

How Smith jumped the line

Smith’s purchases of the Jazz and RSL were more typical because, in a sense, both were for sale.

With the Jazz, he had made overtures before to former owner Gail Miller about buying the team. Although he was surprised when it actually became available, the rest of the process occurred as normal, albeit behind the scenes.

(Ross D. Franklin | AP) Fans watch as players warm up prior to the Arizona Coyotes' home-opening NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets at the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena in Tempe, Ariz., Oct. 28, 2022.

With RSL, the organization had been looking for a new owner for more than a year. Smith, already having purchased the Jazz and being a local, was in prime position to step in. He later did so with Philadelphia 76ers owner David Blitzer and other investors.

But it’s a different story with the NHL and what’s happening with the Coyotes.

From a business perspective, Smith’s push to get an NHL team coincided with the unraveling in Phoenix. The Coyotes’ search for a permanent home hit roadblocks at every turn, most notably last May when local voters shot down the franchise’s plan to build a new arena in Tempe.

Going into the vote, the Coyotes were confident. They were going to buy the land, rezone it to build an entertainment district and get a few tax breaks.

“It kind of seemed like it was going to pass,” said Brandon Brown, a reporter at the Phoenix Business Journal. “... They were going to have a little bit of a tax incentive, but no straight up money was going to come from the city of Tempe. So it wasn’t a very big ask as far as sports arenas come. People in the state weren’t going to pay millions, or hundreds of millions.”

Instead, it was voted down in a resounding vote. Brown noted that there were labor unions rallying against tax breaks for ultra-wealthy sports owners.

But it was also a sign that the support for the Coyotes wasn’t as strong in the Phoenix area.

“I thought the organization was in trouble back then,” said Remy Mastey, who has covered the team for the Hockey News.

While the Coyotes’ push for a permanent arena teetered, Smith leveraged his desire to the league. In January, he formally started the process with the NHL to get a team to Utah.

There were other cities jockeying for a team before Salt Lake — including Houston, Quebec, Atlanta and others — but Smith has jumped the line.

At least one reason is he’s able, and willing, to pay more. The last team added to the league, the Seattle Kraken, was bought for $650 million. This time, the price tag Smith is nearly double, according to several reports.

“If he is offering an absurd amount of money for the team, how could the Coyotes say no?” Brown said. “If Salt Lake does leapfrog everyone, I’m sure it is a money thing. Just willing to pay more than anyone else.”

Franco said what could be attracting the NHL regarding Smith as an owner is not only his deep pockets, but his potential value to the league’s future. He co-founded Qualtrics, an experience management company, and partnered with the Jazz before he owned the team. With Qualtrics surveys and other technology being so prevalent in businesses — including sports — around the world, Franco could see the NHL benefiting from that.

Arizona Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram, center, celebrates a win against the St. Louis Blues with Coyotes left wing Michael Carcone (53) and Coyotes center Alexander Kerfoot, left, as time expires in the third period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Tempe, Ariz. The Coyotes won 4-1. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

“Is he going to be able to elevate NHL to another degree with the services that he offers?” Franco said. “Is he going to help NHL develop longer-lasting partnerships? For example, will Qualtrics be the official survey provider for the NHL and provide them with additional innovational technology that’s going to help them maximize efficiencies and maximize profit?”

Utah strongly welcomes an NHL team

As Arizona and its cities in the Phoenix area are effectively, and possibly inadvertently, pushing the Coyotes out of the state, Utahns at the local and state levels have made it clear they’d embrace an NHL team with open arms.

Need an arena? The Utah Legislature passed a bill that would fund a hockey arena with $1 billion of taxpayer money. In the meantime, Smith has said publicly that an NHL team would temporarily play in the Delta Center while the new, hockey specific arena gets built. Delta Center is used primarily by the Utah Jazz, but it’s been transformed for various other events — including Frozen Fury, which features two NHL teams. This September, the L.A. Kings face off against the Las Vegas Golden Knights.

Need government support? During the legislative session, state leaders met with Bettman and released a public statement that it did so. Gov. Spencer Cox, Senate President J. Stuart Adams and House Speaker Mike Schultz were in the meeting.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Kings fans celebrate after a Kings goal, in Hockey action between the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings, at the Delta Center, on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023.

“Utah has the foundation of being the next major sports and entertainment destination in the United States,” a Senate statement read. “With the fastest growing economy, youngest population in the country and a long history as a premier winter sports destination, Utah is excited about the prospect of being the new home to an NHL franchise.”

The legislature even went so far as to pass a joint resolution supporting an NHL team in the state. While that is not legally binding, Sen. Daniel McCay, who initially proposed the resolution, said it sends a message to those who want to do business with Utah or trying to bring their businesses there.

A short turnaround

Smith had the luxury of taking his time when it came to assuming ownership of the Jazz, RSL and eventually the Utah Royals FC. With the Coyotes relocating to Utah, he’ll only have a few months to get everything situated before the 2024-25 season starts in October.

“He has to hire a lot of people for the hockey organization,” Brown said. “Sponsors, all new employees. It would be really, really fast.”

Ideally, Smith would’ve waited for an NHL team to be officially for sale or for the league to expand. That would’ve given him a longer runway. When Smith was asked on “The Pat McAfee Show” last month whether he prefers an expansion team or an existing team, he responded, “Look, I think our goal is NHL, and I’ll leave the rest on how that happens to Gary.”

From the NHL’s perspective, the Coyotes were running out of time to find a new stadium. Owner Alex Meruelo is trying to win a land auction in Phoenix dated June 27. It is valued at almost $70 million. The prevailing theory was that the team would relocate regardless, and Meruelo would be first in line for an expansion team if he won the auction.

Fortunately, a team in Utah could be very well received right off the bat. Utah Grizzlies fans have said they’d support an NHL team if one arrived, although some fear they’ll struggle to pay the NHL’s higher ticket prices.

Where a new team may struggle at first, Franco said, is scaling up to include casual fans. That might be difficult in a market where the Salt Lake City metropolitan area houses around 1.3 million people, some of whom already regularly attend Jazz, RSL, Royals or college athletics events.

“This new NHL team would have to attract those casual fans that probably are already built-in hardcore Jazz fans, that now you’re trying to pull them in, or you’re trying to pull in new fans from the Salt Lake market, north of Salt Lake, or south of Salt Lake,” Franco said. “So there are a lot of challenges there.”

Franco added that bigger markets like Los Angeles and New York tend to have an easier time filling stadiums of their multiple professional teams merely because they have higher populations.

Jeff Robbins, CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, said he’s “optimistic” about an NHL team’s draw in Utah based on crowds he’s seen at preseason hockey games held at Delta Center over the past several years. Smith owns the Delta Center, making theoretically easier for a new team to have a temporary home arena before a hockey-specific one is built.

And, Robbins believes Smith is the right man for the job.

“I believe he has both the business acumen and the sports acumen to bring an NHL franchise here,” Robbins said.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.