On Wednesday Gail Miller said that 2020, like much of her life, has been an “unexpected journey,” with the latest unexpected moment being the sale of the Utah Jazz.
The announcement of the sale, from the Miller family to local tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith, did come as a shock to most, after 35 years of the family owning the team in Salt Lake City.
Perhaps the only person who wasn’t shocked by the news was Smith, who said this isn’t the first time he’s shown interest in purchasing the team.
“I’ve approached Gail and the Millers a couple of times,” Smith, said. “There’s no secret about my interest in the NBA, and there’s really no secret about my interest in the Jazz.”
The sale, which league sources said was worth $1.6 billion, includes the Utah Jazz and the NBA G League affiliate Salt Lake City Stars, Vivint Arena and “management” of Triple-A baseball’s Salt Lake Bees. Additionally, Smith plans to purchase the Zone Sports radio network in a separate agreement.
Miller will continue to own a minority stake in the Jazz, with Smith becoming the majority owner of the team.
A large number of fans on social media, upon hearing the news Wednesday, wondered if a shift in ownership would mean a move for the team. Smith, the founder and CEO of Qualtrics, is a native of Utah and an alumnus of BYU who has been linked to the team in a number of ways during the past few years. Smith is the co-creator of the “5 For The Fight” charity fund, which became the sponsored jersey patch worn by Jazz players. The charity has raised over $25 million for cancer research in the three years since partnering with the Jazz.
Qualtrics has offices in multiple cities but is headquartered in Provo and Seattle. It’s the Seattle connection that had fans a little worried.
In 2017, when Miller announced that ownership of the Jazz would be transferred into a legacy trust, she remembered something the late Larry H. Miller had said when the family originally bought the team: “The Jazz can’t leave Utah. We’ve got to do everything we can to keep them here.”
On Wednesday, with LHM Group president Steve Starks to her left, Smith and his wife Ashley to her right, Gail Miller gave her assurances that the Smiths would continue the Jazz’s legacy in Utah.
“I am fully convinced that with this sale, the objectives of that trust will still be honored and want you to know that the new owners have made the same commitment to keep the team in Utah,” Miller said.
Smith noted growing up and cheering for the Jazz throughout his life and even playing in the Junior Jazz program in his youth.
“We couldn’t more humbled,” he said. “We couldn’t be more honored with your trust. Your 35-year stewardship and legacy is one that I believe, as Utahns, we’re all in debt to you and the Miller family. Our commitment is that we’re going to build on that legacy.”
The sale, which has been agreed upon by both sides, will not be official until it has full approval from the NBA Board of Governors, which is expected according to multiple league sources. Once the sale is finalized, Smith will be the Jazz’s governor and representative at league meetings, with full financial control and decision-making authority.
There is no reason to believe that a change in ownership will mean any change in the Jazz’s front office. Starks will remain an adviser to Smith in addition to his role with the LHM Group, and though the press conference was held virtually, a select few were on hand, including Jazz executive vice president Dennis Lindsey and general manager Justin Zanik.
The closing of the deal comes at a precarious time for the NBA, and the Jazz and Smith will have to hit the ground running. Though he couldn’t field questions from the media on Wednesday because the sale is still pending approval, Smith faces some tough questions ahead.
Chief among those is how much is he willing to spend? And, how involved will he be in the decision-making process?
Lindsey has said previously that the Millers have continued to give their full support for any and all decisions made by the front office, including financially, but that doesn’t mean the Millers and Jazz brass haven’t been careful about salary cap expenditures.
Although Larry H. Miller was known for being pretty hands-on and involved, since his death in 2009 Gail Miller has taken a bit of a back seat and allowed the front office to operate on its own for the most part. As younger people continue to join the ranks of NBA ownership, they have become more forward-facing rather than fading into the background.
How much Smith will be involved with the day-to-day operations of the team is yet to be seen. What we do know about Smith, 42, is he is an avid basketball and Jazz fan, is regularly seen in his courtside seats by the Jazz bench, has a half basketball court at Qualtrics headquarters, is lively on social media and has been a fierce defender of the Jazz players’ right to be activists for social justice causes.
Though some might argue that a fan of that magnitude could be disruptive in the decision-making processes, it’s also important to note that Smith built Qualtrics from the ground up and into a company that sold for $8 billion to SAP in 2018. The company now has offices in 25 cities around the world with more than 3,000 employees. That kind of growth requires the ability to delegate and trust management, traits that are at the heart of owning an NBA team.
“I am fully convinced that with this sale, the objectives of that trust will still be honored and want you to know that the new owners have made the same commitment to keep the team in Utah.” — Gail Miller
On the financial side, the Jazz are very likely looking at an immediate future that includes paying into the luxury tax, with extension decisions to be made for both Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, as well as whether to re-sign Jordan Clarkson this offseason. Smith’s readiness or reluctance for spending will have an impact on the future of the team one way or another.
Smith also comes into NBA ownership at one of the strangest moments in NBA history, following a season that was suspended by a pandemic and only just finished in early October.
With salary-cap reductions, undecided schedules, the likelihood of fans not returning to arenas immediately, and negotiations currently underway between the league, board of governors and players association, Smith is absolutely going to have his work cut out for him in the coming weeks.