Miller family selling Utah Jazz to Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Karl Malone and John Stockton share a moment on the court in this 1997 photo.

Gail Miller noted near the conclusion of a Wednesday morning news conference at Vivint Smart Home Arena that when she and late husband Larry completed the full purchase of the flailing Utah Jazz in 1986, former owner Sam Battistone handed them a basketball “representing the turn of the stewardship.”

Miller, on Wednesday, then presented a ball to Ashley Smith and a ceremonial key to Ryan Smith as a symbol of turning the team over to them.

Miller, whose family has owned the NBA’s Jazz franchise for the past 35 years, announced that she has entered into an agreement to sell a majority share of the team to the Smiths. Ryan Smith is best-known as the co-founder of Provo-based software company Qualtrics.

The stunning sale was first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, who put the sale price at $1.66 billion.

“Today is a day I have never been able to imagine,” said Miller, owner and chairperson of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies.

In the news conference, which took place virtually via Zoom, Miller was flanked by the Smiths and LHM organization president Steve Starks, in announcing the news. She said that the deal will include Jazz; their G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars; and also Vivint Smart Home Arena. She said that the Triple-A baseball team that the family owns, the Salt Lake Bees, “will remain connected to the Jazz through a management agreement.” The Zone Sports Network is also set to be sold in a separate transaction.

The Miller family will maintain a minority interest in the team.

Smith said that the opportunity to buy the Jazz was a dream scenario, noting that he’d had opportunities to purchase other NBA teams but that his wife had encouraged him to wait — just in case the Jazz unexpectedly became available.

“I’ve approached Gail and the Millers a couple times. There’s no secret about my interest in the NBA, and there’s really no secret about my interest in the Jazz. I grew up watching the Jazz, this is the team I’ve cheered for. I played Junior Jazz. I dreamed of playing for the Jazz, but that didn’t work out,” he said. “… The Jazz are a gift to this whole community. And that’s how we view it. That’s 100% how we view this. And we look to use this platform to continue to do good.”

(Photo courtesy Utah Jazz/Melissa Majchrzak) Gail Miller, owner and chair of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies and the Utah Jazz speaks at a news conference where she announced agreements to sell a majority interest in the Utah Jazz and other sports to Ryan Smith at vivint.SmartHome Arena on October 28, 2020 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In 2017, Miller transferred ownership of the team and its arena to a legacy trust, a plan she said would keep the franchise in the family and in Salt Lake City in perpetuity.

Under that plan, she was to serve as the trustee, then eventually transfer control of the organization to a six-person board of managers, composed of members of her family, a move that she noted Wednesday was done “with the objective of assuring our loyal fans that the team would remain in Utah.”

Those legacy plans apparently changed, though. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Miller noted that 2020 has been an “unexpected journey.”

The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies laid off hundreds of employees in April. In May, Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment announced a 40% reduction in workforce after revenues were cut to near zero in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Miller did not say whether finances factored into her decision to sell. Still, she added, selling the team to Ryan and Ashley Smith will ultimately accomplish the goal of keeping the Jazz in place.

“I am fully convinced that with this sale, the objectives of that trust will still be honored,” Miller said. "And I want you to know that the new owners have made the same commitment to keep the team in Utah.

“Selling the Utah Jazz was a huge decision, but doing so becomes a catalyst for our family and businesses to continue to evolve and enrich lives,” she added.

(Photo courtesy Utah Jazz/Melissa Majchrzak) Ryan and Ashley Smith talk about their plans to buy the Jazz and and other sports and entertainment properties from the Miller family on October 28, 2020.

Smith co-founded Qualtrics, a software company, with his brother Jared in their parents’ basement. In 2018, they sold Qualtrics to German software company SAP for a reported $8 billion.

Qualtrics has had a sponsorship deal with the Jazz to put the logo of their cancer charity, 5 For The Fight, on the team’s jerseys — a deal that last year was extended through the 2022-23 season.

The sale is pending approval from the NBA’s Board of Governors, though Starks said that league leadership “is very supportive of this.”

All-Star center Rudy Gobert later tweeted out his excitement for the team’s new owners as well as his appreciation for the old ones.

“Excited to have [Ryan Smith] part of the family! I know that he is completely dedicated to make this organization the best it can be and to continue the great work he’s been doing for our communities [sic],” Gobert wrote. “Also Very grateful for the Miller family and the amazing organization that they have built over the years! It’s a new chapter for the Jazz but they will forever be a big part of this team and none of this would be possible without them.”

Forward Joe Ingles added: “Thankyou [sic] to Gail & the entire Miller family for everything you have done for the [Utah Jazz]. You risked everything to buy the team & keep it here in Utah.”

After moving from New Orleans to Salt Lake City, the Jazz franchise was beset by monetary problems so severe that the team scheduled 10 of its 41 “home” games for the 1983-84 season at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas in an effort to drum up interest and pry open some wallets.

Larry H. Miller initially purchased a 50% share of the organization in May 1985 to stabilize its tenuous finances, before ultimately purchasing the remaining 50% of the team from Battistone in 1986. Gail Miller assumed control of the franchise upon Larry’s death in 2009.

Since the Millers assumed control, the Jazz have been one of the NBA’s most stable and consistent franchises, racking up 16 seasons of 50 or more wins.

Now, change is coming. But Gail Miller is of the opinion the right people are in place to lead that change.

“I believe Ryan and Ashley embody the things that we as a family hold dear,” Miller said. “… I have every confidence that they will move the team to the next level while honoring our history, our common goals and our work.”