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Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith leaning on experience to make his imprint on the NBA

Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics, speaks at a press conference announcing Smith’s purchase of the Utah Jazz from Gail Miller.
Ryan Smith, CEO of Qualtrics, speaks at a press conference announcing Smith’s purchase of the Utah Jazz from Gail Miller at Vivint SmartHome Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.
Melissa Majchrzak

It’s been pretty difficult for Ryan Smith to stay quiet.

The Utah Jazz’s new owner was limited in what he could publicly say until the sale of the team was made final Thursday following an NBA board of governors vote. The Jazz went through the draft, free agency and the preseason, and through it all Smith, a lifelong Jazz fan has been tight-lipped about his excitement.

“Just to be quiet throughout that whole process has been pretty tough so I’m excited to actually be able to address you all,” Smith said on a Zoom call with local reporters Friday afternoon.

The past couple of months have been a fast-paced learning experience for the 42-year-old tech entrepreneur turned NBA team owner. Smith has had conversations with Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, was in the war room with Jazz executives during the NBA draft on Nov. 18, has been sitting in on coaches meetings with Quin Snyder and is trying to figure out what kind of owner he is going to be, something he hasn’t quite figured out yet.

“That’s too complicated,” he said. “I’m just going to be Ryan.”

Through conversations with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and others throughout the league, Smith said what he’s learned is that he can be an asset to the team by leaning on what has made him successful so far. For Smith, who also co-founded Qualtrics, a company that uses data and statistical analysis to give insight on and enhance customer experience, there are many areas where he feels he can help the franchise improve and put his imprint on the team.

“I’ve built my whole career on experiences, so naturally I’m coming in with an experience lens,” Smith said. “What is the employee experience of the Utah Jazz organization, and 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? I view the world that way, that’s what I do for a living and so that’s the angle I’m taking and there’s always room to design and improve those experiences across the board.”

The Jazz’s offseason moves — re-signing Jordan Clarkson, bringing Derrick Favors back and Donovan Mitchell signing a contract extension — is already proof enough for Smith that the culture cultivated by the Miller family, front office and coaching staff is working. Smith noted he’s hopeful Rudy Gobert’s name will also be added to that list and be a member of the Jazz for a long time.

Of course, team ownership does not just involve the players and their success. The Jazz’s broadcast deal with AT&T Sportsnet, signed in 2009, expires after the 2020-21 season. Smith described the ways fans are consuming the NBA these days and that it ranges from people watching on their phones to streaming the games in different countries to just watching on the TV from the comfort of your own home.

With all of that in mind, it could mean there are changes on the horizon for how Jazz fans watch the games.

“I do believe that we can do better at it,” Smith said. “It’s not just a one size fits all. I’m excited to go help out with that, and that’s part of the fan experience. ... I’m excited for that challenge and this is right in our wheelhouse.”

This is admittedly not the first time Smith has run a large company and he’s familiar with delegation and trusts the Jazz front office and coaching staff, so it’s not like he’s going to come barreling through the doors and making decisions for the people that have been hired to make the decisions. He knows there’s a time and place for his input. Though Smith admitted this is the first time in his career where the community is such a driving force in every decision that is made.

“I’ve never been through a transaction like this,” Smith said. “There was really three parties. There was Gail and the Miller family, there was myself as a buyer and then there was this third party, which was the community and legitimately, I think the third party had the biggest voice at every single moment.”

That’s where Smith says he’ll be taking the lessons learned from watching how the Millers handled things over decades in which they owned the team.

Smith said more than anything else he recognized that the Millers would always take the high road and do right by the community and their fans, no matter what. So when it comes to issues of players using their platforms to fight for social causes and racial justice, Smith said not only is he behind the players, but the team will be an active participant.

“There’s nothing that is as bad of an experience as systemic racism,” Smith said. “It’s not that we’re just going to be anti-racist, we’re going to be actively anti-racist as an organization. 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. ... 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.”

It’s been a pretty precarious time to come into NBA ownership with profits down as a result of the pandemic and so much unknown about what the league could look like over the next year, but none of that has Smith worried or feeling fearful.

Instead, Smith said he’s been inspired by the way the players and the organization have been able to keep going and that he’s excited for Jazz fans, himself included, to have basketball back in their lives.