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Ryan Smith, approved as new Utah Jazz owner by NBA’s Board of Governors, says, ‘I’m just here to help’

Team will have a new majority owner for the first time since 1986.

(Photo courtesy Utah Jazz/Melissa Majchrzak) Ryan Smith talks about he and his wife's plans to buy the Jazz and and other sports and entertainment properties from the Miller family on October 28, 2020.

Back on Oct. 28, Gail Miller announced that after 35 years of her family owning and running the Utah Jazz, they would be selling the team to Qualtrics founder Ryan Smith.

On Friday morning, it became official, with the NBA announcing that the league’s Board of Governors had unanimously approved the sale, which will give the 42-year-old Smith the majority ownership stake in the team.

A few hours later, he was on a Zoom call with local media to introduce himself and his vision for the Jazz. He described the past few months as “surreal,” and noted that the organizational leadership had devoted the intervening period between the announcement of the sale and the league’s approval “to say, ‘Hey look, let’s use this time to try to get you up to speed’” — up to and including coach Quin Snyder inviting him into meetings to “explain defense.”

And while Smith has had a blast with it all, he also explained that, in his eyes, his role within the organization will be a pretty straightforward one.

“It’s not like once I’ve learned something, I’m going to go in and chime in to what the basketball side of the house is really doing — I’m just here to help,” Smith said. “I truly believe that we hire the best and let them roll — and then augment ‘em with anything they need help with or anything that I or our group can do.”

Though Smith went to great lengths to praise the Miller family, calling himself “about as fortunate as anyone in the history of the NBA to be able to come in to an organization that the Millers have built,” the league’s youngest owner did give some hints about how he will put his own stamp on the franchise.

Asked about the Jazz’s ongoing contract extension negotiations with All-NBA center Rudy Gobert, Smith replied, “I love Rudy — I see everything he does, and have so much respect for him, and we definitely hope he’s going to be here for a really long time.” Queried about his willingness to spend into the luxury tax, he laughed and shot back, “Well, we’re in the luxury tax, so that answers that.

When the divide between players who actively protested for racial and social justice and fans who lamented the inclusion of “politics in sports” was invoked, Smith left zero doubt about where he stood on the issue.

“There’s nothing that is as bad of an experience as systemic racism — and it exists,” Smith said. “I’ll tell you, one of the optimistic things from the fan base is there might be a lot of social media buzz, but our fans — from a data standpoint — are behind us.

“… I don’t think that we’re going to do anything but leverage this platform to do good. … It’s not that we’re going to be anti-racist — we’re going to be actively anti-racist as an organization,” he added. “And that means we’re going to take our time and our energy and we’re going to use this platform to help make our communities more equitable, from education to health care. This is going to be one of the things we do, and it should have been done a hell of a long time ago. I don’t know why we’re in this spot. I’m unapologetic about it, and I stand with our guys.”

In the end, he said, his goal with team, at its most basic, is to take what’s in place and find out if there’s a way to make it better.

“I’m coming in from an experience lens, which is, ‘OK, what is the employee experience of the Utah Jazz organization?’ Or, ‘What’s the player experience when you play here? What’s the fan experience like? What happens when you come as an opposing player and you get off the bus? What is that experience?’” Smith said. “And I view the world that way — it’s what I do for a living, and so that’s the angle I’m taking. There’s always room to design and improve those experiences across the board.”

The final sale — which will include the Jazz, Vivint Arena, the NBA G League Salt Lake City Stars, and management operations of the Triple-A baseball affiliate Salt Lake Bees — is for $1.66 billion, per multiple media reports. A team statement added that, “A separate agreement and approval process are ongoing for The Zone Sports Network (97.5 FM, 1280 AM). These properties will comprise the newly formed Smith Entertainment Group (SEG).”

Smith and his wife, Ashley, have also brought on a pair of minority investors — Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Atlassian, and Ryan Sweeney, partner at Accel. Cannon-Brooks becomes the first Australian to own a minority interest in an NBA franchise. The Millers will also maintain a minority share.

“Ryan Smith is a forward-thinking, community-minded entrepreneur and business leader who will be a fantastic addition to our league,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “As a life-long fan of the Utah Jazz and more recently as one of their key marketing partners, Ryan has demonstrated his deep commitment to the Jazz and the Utah community and there’s no doubt he will bring that same level of dedication to the operation of the team. We are also extraordinarily appreciative of Gail Miller, Greg Miller and the Miller family for 35 years of outstanding leadership and service and, on behalf of the entire NBA, thank them for always running a first-class organization in every way.”

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 partnership has thus far raised more than $26 million for cancer research.

At the October announcement of the impending sale, Smith said he’d approached Gail Miller on numerous occasions about the ownership of the team, owing to his longtime fandom of the Jazz and his recent business success, which saw him sell Qualtrics — which he co-founded with his brother Jared in their parents’ basement — to German software company SAP for a reported $8 billion.

Smith said that the opportunity to buy the Jazz was a dream scenario, noting that he’d had chances to purchase other NBA teams (ESPN’s Tim MacMahon reported Thursday that Smith had considered a bid to buy the Minnesota Timberwolves), but that his wife had encouraged him to wait — just in case the Jazz unexpectedly became available.

Finally, the timing was right.

And now, Smith couldn’t be more thrilled.

He giddily noted his evolution from a young boy who played Junior Jazz to a season ticket-holder so close to the action that “Quin coaches in front of my feet and trips over them almost every single game” to now being the guy with the final say-so. Asked by a reporter if he was at all worried that the work of owning the Jazz might detract from being a fan of them, Smith quickly responded in the negative.

“I’ve told my wife, I’ve told everyone that we’re going to have fun. If this gets to the point that it’s not fun, then something went wrong,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard, it doesn’t mean there’s not going to be ups and downs. I mean, it’s the NBA and that’s just the way it goes. But at the end of the day, we’re just gonna have fun, and that’s that’s what I’m excited about.”

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