Life is a series of experiences.
In the case of Ryan Smith, experience is life.
The 42-year-old Qualtrics founder made his fortune helping brands analyze, manage, and improve their customers’ experiences. It is a lens through which Smith views the world around him.
When he walks into Vivint Arena, he considers the fan experience. He thinks about the experiences of the employees within the organization. He wonders about the experience of the players, and not just the ones for the home team he has loved since childhood.
“What happens when you come in as an opposing player and get off the bus?” Smith asks. “What’s that experience? That’s how I view things.”
So as Smith and his wife, Ashley Smith, completed their purchase of a majority stake of the Utah Jazz, taking the reins from Gail Miller and a family that owned and operated the team with a steady hand for the last 35 years, it is fair to wonder what this new experience might be like.
“We want to have fun,” Smith says.
The Smiths sat down at center court in Vivint Arena last week with longtime Jazz broadcaster Craig Bolerjack for their first interview after closing the deal to buy the Utah Jazz and the team’s downtown arena. The couple looked down at the logo painted on the perfectly polished hardwood and considered the question that Bolerjack, the baritone voice of the team, had just asked them. The couple had just finalized a deal they could have only dreamed of a few years ago. Now the new first famly of the Jazz looked down at their team’s logo and thought about what it meant to them own it.
“I don’t look at it that way. I look at the floor and I see Larry,” Ryan Smith said.
The late Larry H. Miller isn’t the only person who came to mind.
“I see a community coming together,” he said.
“Not for a second are we thinking about what’s ours or ownership,” Ashley Smith added. “We see ourselves as stewards.”
Stewardship had been a tenet of the Miller family’s tenure as owners of the Jazz. “People don’t understand how non-theoretical that is,” Ryan Smith said. “It’s a reality.” And as such, it will remain the bedrock for the Smiths as they take control of Utah’s beloved NBA franchise. But as someone who spends his life understanding experience, Smith would be the first to tell you that there is always room to improve.
The Smith’s investor group includes two other key figures: 43-year-old venture capitalist Ryan Sweeney and 41-year-old tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, whom Smith called “the Elon Musk of Australia”. It is a group that hopes to leverage its youth and global connections to help take Utah and the Jazz into the future.
“We have a world-class organization and foundation,” Smith said. “We’re just going to keep going and turn it up as much as we can with some fresh legs.”
At the heart of the Smiths’ decision to purchase the Jazz are the family’s love of Utah and basketball.
During negotiations, Smith said he felt like there were three parties sitting at the table: the Miller family, his group, and the Utah community.
“I think that the third party had the biggest voice in every single moment,” he said.
That was fine by Smith, who genuinely loves his home state and is betting on both the Jazz’s and Utah’s long-term success. The tech billionaire had flirted with the idea of buying a stake in other pro franchises but kept coming back to his roots.
“Utah is on a tear right now,” Smith said, excitedly ticking off a list of selling points: a booming real estate market, an NBA All-Star game in 2023, the potential to host a future Winter Olympics, and, of course, the rapid growth of the Silicon Slopes tech industry.
“I think there are a lot of big market teams that wish they were in our spot a little bit,” he said. “We’re way above our weight class in what we’ve been able to accomplish, and I’m a kid that’s been able to do things in Utah that, in the eyes over everyone else, we couldn’t do here. I love Utah.”
The Smiths love basketball and the Jazz, too.
There is a hoop inside the Qualtrics offices, where Smith shoots as he makes phone calls. There is a hoop in the family’s living room, a court in their basement, and mini hoops in each one of the children’s bedrooms.
“At any time, at least one person is dribbling a ball in our house, “Ashley Smith said. “That’s what basketball is. It’s always happening. It’s always bringing us together.”
The love of the game has been passed down to them through family ties. Ryan Smith recalled a Jazz game being on the television every time he was at his grandfather’s house. Ashley Smith said her father became so overjoyed the day he heard a team was coming to Utah that he had to pull his car over and compose himself.
Now car rides with the Smiths to games are a sanctuary.
“The Jazz for me and my family is kind of a way to slip away from the world a little bit,” he said. “It’s something we’re able to do as a family. We get time together driving up to the game and it’s fun.”
Fun is key for Smith.
“If this gets to a point that it’s not fun, then something went wrong,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not going to be hard and there aren’t going to be ups and downs. It’s the NBA. That’s the way it goes. But at the end of the day, we’re going to have fun.”
Sitting at center court last week, the Smiths looked toward the upper bowl, where they sat for games earlier in their lives, and marveled at how far they’d come.
“What advice would your younger selves give you now?” Bolerjack asked them.
“I think the first thing I’d tell myself is you better win,” Ryan Smith said.
“Have fun but take some risk and do something worthwhile,” Ashley Smith added.
“Let’s keep carrying on this legacy and let’s have fun,” Ryan Smith agreed. “This should be a really fun thing. I want everyone who comes here to have fun. I want the players to have fun. We want to have fun. The Jazz have been a fun part of our lives and we want it to stay that way.”