A new Utah Jazz family dynasty dawns as tech titan Ryan Smith officially takes over

A new era for the Utah Jazz is officially underway following a unanimous vote by the NBA board of governors Thursday to approve the Miller family sale of the nearly 50-year-old franchise to tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith and his wife, Ashley.

The newly formed Smith Entertainment Group takes over control of the Jazz, Vivint Arena, the NBA G League Salt Lake Stars and management and operation of Los Angeles Angels’ Triple A affiliate Salt Lake Bees. A deal is pending in a separate process that is likely to bring the Zone Sports Network, which includes radio stations 97.5 FM and 1280 AM, under the Smith Group umbrella. While no sale terms were disclosed by participants, the deal is estimated to be worth around $1.6 billion.

Who is Ryan Smith, the new Utah Jazz owner?

Ryan Smith, 42, is the co-founder of Provo-based Qualtrics, one of most successful tech startups to come out of the state and a company that was acquired by German software giant SAP in a then-record $8 billion cash deal in 2018.

Qualtrics CEO Ryan Smith sits in the Hub at the company’s headquarters in Provo on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Smith, who grew up in Utah County and attended college at Brigham Young University, said he could have never envisioned a day like today as a young Jazz fan.

“I don’t think there has ever been a more exciting time to be in Utah,” Smith said. “Not only do we have a great team and organization with the Jazz, but the trajectory of the state as a whole is unmatched. There is so much opportunity here and success breeds success.

“I grew up as a big Jazz fan, and that makes this day even more special. The Jazz have a phenomenal leadership team who will continue to guide the organization. We are all committed to building, and to building in Utah.” 

In a Deseret News interview, Ryan Smith said he feels lucky to be taking over the helm of a franchise that is already operating at an extremely high level.

“It’s already a world-class organization,” Smith said. “Taking over the second-winningest team in the league over the last 30 years is pretty special.”

Smith has a lot in common with the man who bought a half-ownership of the Jazz in 1985 just a handful of years after the team moved from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. Just over a year later, Larry H. Miller bought out his partner to become the sole owner of the Utah Jazz.

Miller rose from an auto parts manager to head of a financial empire that he built a piece at a time and would eventually include, in addition to the Jazz NBA franchise, an expansive, multistate portfolio of car dealerships, the Megaplex Theatre chain, a local TV station, real estate developments and retail stores. Miller brought both his love of sports and his business acumen to bear on the Jazz, developing the team from a struggling, also-ran franchise to an organization that is one of the most successful in the league in spite of its small-market hometown.

A light display decorates the Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. A unanimous vote by the NBA board of governors approved the Miller family’s sale of the nearly 50-year-old franchise to tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith and his wife, Ashley. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“It’s already a world-class organization. Taking over the second-winningest team in the league over the last 30 years is pretty special.” — Utah tech entrepreneur and new Utah Jazz owner, Ryan Smith

Ashley Smith said she and her husband are humbled by the tradition of success and community involvement that the Miller family has made an intrinsic part of the Jazz franchise.

“For us, the Jazz franchise is about love,” Ashley Smith said in a statement. “It’s about coming together to love something bigger than individuals.

“It’s about rallying behind this team. It’s about sharing experiences — sharing victories, losses, lessons learned, hard work and all the ups and downs of any great adventure. We are humbled and honored by Gail and her family’s decision to extend this stewardship to us. We are committed to the Millers’ vision, we are committed to Utah, and we are committed to the Jazz.” 

Like Larry Miller, Ryan Smith has also proven to be a shrewd empire creator, albeit having followed a path that’s much more of this time in comparison to Miller’s Horatio Alger-esque backstory.

Qualtrics, the company he will continue to lead alongside his new responsibilities as Jazz owner, was founded in Provo in 2002. Ryan and brother Jared Smith launched the company together based on technology first developed by Ryan Smith and his father, BYU researcher and professor Scott Smith, amid the elder Smith’s fight (it was successful) against throat cancer.

Initially conceived of as a survey tool for academics, the company morphed into a set of tools and deep data analysis optimized for assessing clients’ business vitality, as viewed through the eyes of their clients and/or employees. This new set of analytics and insight theory has grown to become its own business category and Qualtrics is both the progenitor and leader of the customer experience realm.

Smith — who now serves as the NBA governor of the Utah Jazz and its affiliates and has final decision-making authority for all business and basketball operations and other sale assets — said he sees no need for any immediate changes and is focused on “getting through free agency and getting this season started.”

“There’s a great foundation here and we’re not really going to change anything,” Smith said. “We’re just going to build on what we’ve got ... and maybe put a lens on a few things and turn it up a little bit more.”

Smith said that lens will be focused on winning and building “the fan experience, the player experience and the community experience” and recognizing the powerful platform the Jazz brand has when it comes to education and social justice issues.

While Smith and his wife are the Jazz’s majority owners, he also brings a cadre of powerful tech veterans to the new ownership team in minority positions. Those include Mike Cannon-Brookes, fellow tech entrepreneur and co-founder of Australian software titan Atlassian, and Ryan Sweeney, partner at one of the preeminent Silicon Valley venture capital firms and Qualtrics investor, Accel.

The Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City is pictured on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. A unanimous vote by the NBA board of governors approved the Miller family’s sale of the nearly 50-year-old franchise to tech entrepreneur Ryan Smith and his wife, Ashley. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Smith and the owners’ group have a combined mountain of expertise when it comes to growing top brands and he sees a huge window of opportunity for his Utah-based team to leverage the success the state is experiencing in other areas of business.

“We’re having a once-in-a-generation tech boom in Utah,” Smith said. “Companies are exiting super-cities and are making their way to other places ... and Utah is one of those places.”

Smith said the confluences go beyond Utah’s borders and even the wider region, noting he’s been getting congratulations from around the world and sees the NBA’s 100-million-strong fanbase as the addressable market when it comes to growth potential for his new team.

While his role as owner is newly cast, Smith has long-running ties with both the Jazz and the NBA administration. Smith co-founded the “5 For The Fight” philanthropic effort and its logo has been featured on the Jazz jersey since 2017. The 5 For The Fight campaign is focused on eradicating cancer by supporting groundbreaking cancer research and has raised more than $26 million. The patch, donated to 5 For The Fight by Qualtrics, is the first philanthropic jersey patch in the history of North American professional sports. 

Qualtrics has counted the NBA among its clients for years and Smith featured NBA Commissioner Adam Silver as a keynote speaker at the company’s annual X4 user conference in 2019.

On Friday, Silver celebrated both new Jazz owners and the dynasty built and tended for decades by the Miller family.

“Ryan Smith is a forward-thinking, community-minded entrepreneur and business leader who will be a fantastic addition to our league,” Silver said in a statement. “As a lifelong 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.” 

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated that Larry Miller brought the New Orleans Jazz to Salt Lake City in 1979. Miller became a part owner of the team in 1985.