Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith are welcoming the world to Utah this week — and have a new vision to sell

The owners want to change outsiders’ perception of the state and hope the NBA’s All-Star Weekend will help do that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith give a news conference at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, to discuss the All-Star weekend.

A few weeks before the NBA’s biggest party was set to descend on Salt Lake City, the recording artist Travis Scott joined Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith in his suite at Vivint Arena.

There, according to Smith, Scott made a proclamation.

“He just screams out, ‘I love Utah!’” Smith recalled. “I was like, ‘What was that?’ He’s like, ‘I love Utah. There’s just something here that I love. I always come here, I see the mountains. … It’s refreshing, it’s wellness, it’s healthy; like I love it here.’

“And that’s the vibe we get a lot and that’s a story we probably need to tell a lot more.”

It’s a story that Smith will surely be telling — in some form or another — plenty over the next few days as he plays the role of host to celebrities and power players and thousands of other visitors headed to Salt Lake City for the NBA’s All-Star Weekend.

Smith and his wife Ashley hope to position themselves as foremost representatives of the state of Utah — not just its basketball team. The Smiths hope they can show their image of Utah to the world, and in doing so, change the perception of our community.

More involved than the typical owners

The Smiths’ approach to All-Star Weekend has gone beyond that of the typical ownership group that hosts the event. Often, the team’s owner simply gives the event planning work to the NBA. It’s their party, after all.

But if you talk to those who are used to working with the NBA to host the annual event, they’ll note that Ryan and Ashley Smith are doing more than the usual handshaking. For example, they’ve toured the Salt Palace multiple times, planning every aspect of the NBA Crossover event. On Monday, Ryan Smith toured Vivint Arena, making sure its new setup is ready.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vivint Arena showcases signature All-Star merchandise and food they will be selling during the NBA All-Star weekend on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

“It’s really special, how involved they’ve been. I’ve just been highly, highly impressed,” NBA senior vice president of event strategy and development Joey Graziano said. “They want to make sure that they are curating every moment of this experience in partnership with the NBA.”

So why are the Smiths doing all this? Well, they’ve made no secret of their intentions: they want to change the perception of Utah around the world, to the international audience of All-Star Game watchers and the tens of thousands of people who will fly in over the coming days.

“I think about just the opportunity to showcase Utah,” Ashley Smith said. “We’re massively passionate about Utah. What a cool opportunity for everyone else to see what we see. We kind of have it all here. That’s what I always say: Utah has it all.”

In particular: they want people to know about Utah’s tech scene — the so-called Silicon Slopes. “We are a prime example of not just the theory about tech, but about what happens when it actually works,” Smith said. Naturally, a higher reputation of Utah among tech-savvy folks serves to benefit the Smiths, but they believe telling that story benefits the state as well.

“Like any state, you can show the lowlights. That’s easy. But the state has so many highlights. And we’ve been the beneficiaries of that,” he said.

“I used to drive up to Salt Lake and there was a massive gap between like American Fork and Bluffdale, or Sandy, that doesn’t exist anymore,” Smith said. “It’s filled in with this massive tech hub, which most states are pretty jealous of, because what it’s done is brought jobs. It’s created one of the fastest growing economies.”

Graziano, the NBA representative, echoed that sentiment. “This is a story about the power of technology to transform a city and a state,” he said.

A busy week

With hosting duties come hospitality responsibilities: meeting sponsors, players, fellow team owners, and so much more during this weekend. In fact, the schedule is such that it is literally impossible for Ryan Smith to meet all of the appointments he has during All-Star Weekend in Salt Lake City this week.

That’s why he and Ashley — who is also a registered owner of the Jazz franchise — are taking a “divide and conquer” strategy to the week, together combating a schedule that has so many items per day that both expect their responsibilities to run them ragged over the weekend.

Undeniably, the Smiths are working overtime this week in order to put their best foot forward.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith give a news conference at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, to discuss the All-Star weekend.

Their events were scheduled to start Wednesday, when they would begin the day by hosting an event for Jazz employees, celebrating the work they’ve done to put together the weekend. Then, both Ryan and Ashley planned to head to the Encircle campus in Salt Lake City, where they’ll join NBA trailblazers like Jason Collins — the first openly gay NBA player — to speak to Utah LGBTQ youth about their stories.

On Thursday, they will kick off the NBA Crossover convention at the Salt Palace, before Ryan heads to the first-ever NBA All-Star pitch competition. Essentially, it’s like the ABC show “Shark Tank” — eight Black entrepreneurs, including four from Utah, will get the chance to pitch Smith, Jazz minority owner Ryan Sweeney, American Express’ Elizabeth Rutledge, and UnitedMasters CEO Steve Stoute on their business ideas.

That leads well into Friday’s NBA tech summit, an annual event that’s an obvious point of knowledge for Smith. He’ll present there, meanwhile, Ashley will participate in the NBA’s Day of Service at the Volunteers of America office in South Salt Lake, working to distribute food through the Utah Food Bank. The Smiths will meet up to work with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at a later food-service event, before Ryan heads to the NBA celebrity game at the Huntsman Center on Friday afternoon.

There, he and Dwyane Wade are captains for the two teams: essentially, neither will play in the game, but both will participate in shooting contests during quarter breaks that can “unlock” new scoring opportunities for both teams — like a 4-point shot. Shortly thereafter, Smith will have to head to Vivint Arena to watch Jazz rookie Walker Kessler play in the Rising Star contest Friday night.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A photo-op for All-Star Weekend, on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023.

Late Friday, Smith is also hosting a party for the NBA Board of Governors — the other ownership groups around the league who come to All-Star Weekend. Security for that party is extremely strict, I’m told.

Saturday gets crazy, too. The pair are hosting an NBA “newsmakers” breakfast, for those important folks around the association, and will also attend the All-Star practice that morning. Then, they’ll attend the HBCU Classic at the Huntsman Center, before trying to get down to the snowboarding “Rail Jam” at the Gateway starting at 3 p.m. After that, Smith and celebrity entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk are hosting a panel at NBA Crossover in the afternoon, then Smith heads to All-Star Saturday Night at the arena.

And on the final day of All-Star weekend, the Smiths hope to attend the NBA Legends brunch, the NBA G League “Next Up” game ... and, of course, the All-Star Game itself.

“We’re going to be going, and we might be dragging five kids along, but, like, it’s okay,” Ryan Smith said. “We can just make it work.”

Building an image over time

How successful will the All-Star Game be at promoting that new image of Utah? While the event has both sporting and cultural cachet, it’s simply not a big deal for most Americans. Truthfully, Smith probably has outsized expectations about what one week can do about his state’s perception. He’s made no secret that he hopes it’s going to be a transformative event; or at least, a first step in the process.

“All the lights will be on us,” Smith said, for example. “But I think it’s just one more compelling event of a series that we need to have, and we should have, and we’re going to have... What do we need to do to prepare for an Olympics, and different things like that.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith give a news conference at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, to discuss the All-Star weekend.

But if All-Star Weekend does have an effect on Utah’s outside reputation, it’s going to be through a sort of trickle-down effect, partially through the power of celebrity. That’s why Smith says he’s proud of the celebrity game roster, the Travis Scott and Wiz Khalifa concerts, and the relatively big roster of NBA players coming in to Utah to celebrate. The hope is that if the celebrities in Utah have a good time, they’ll share that experience on social media to their adoring fans.

“I think we want to show every kid that other people think their state’s cool,” Smith said. “It’s a little daunting, because we got to make sure that they’re all getting their experience as well. But that’s fun. That also says a lot about the state that everyone’s not jetting off to Cabo, right? They want to be here and hang out.”

Smith, meanwhile, is a growing Utah celebrity in his own right — in so many ways, he’s following in the footsteps of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who turned his tech business into a high-profile NBA executive spot, then into a great deal of international renown.

And this week, it appears, is the Smiths’ announcement party, their grandest stage.

“We can sleep the week after. Like, you get to do this once every 30 years,” Smith said. “We’re going to rally.”