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Utah Jazz owner says tech mindset brings value to organization

Utah Jazz owner and Qualtrics cofounder Ryan Smith speaks at a Fortune Magazine event at the Montage Deer Valley Monday.
Stuart Isett/Fortune
Utah Jazz owner and Qualtrics cofounder Ryan Smith speaks at a Fortune Magazine event at the Montage Deer Valley Monday.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith spoke about his management philosophy for the team he acquired in 2020 in Park City Monday at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm conference.

Smith bought the team from the Miller family for over $1.6 billion and has since made a few changes, including trading the team’s two all-stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert.

“That’s probably the book of what not to do,” Smith said.

But he said bringing in people smarter than him is key to the franchise’s future success. Newcomers to the organization include former BYU star Danny Ainge, who is serving as the Jazz’s general manager, after a long stint with the Boston Celtics.

Smith has also brought on Miami Heat legend Dwayne Wade as a minority owner of the team.

He said his strategy is similar to how he used to run Qualtrics, the management software company that was acquired by Germany’s SAP for $8 billion in 2019.

“This is what we do in tech," Smith said. "Whether it’s the board, or surrounding yourself with the smartest people. And in tech, there’s no hierarchy, we got rid of that 20 years ago. It’s how do we surround ourselves with the smartest people, and as long as we are going at it together, and we’re right together, it’s kind of one for all, all for one. And so I think that’s kind of what we bring for the league.”

He said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has been welcoming to the new Jazz ownership, the youngest in the league.

Smith said youth is Utah’s biggest advantage; the Beehive State has a median age of 32 years, the youngest in the U.S.

“I was always told, by a famous venture capitalist when we received funding, was ‘Hey, you’ve got to keep your organization young in spirit and soul, not age. You just have to be young as an organization,'" Smith said. "What I love about Utah is it’s young in soul. And that’s unbelievable, I’ll bet on that all day long.”

Tech entrepreneurs are known to shake things up, and Smith recently did that with the Jazz’s media rights deal.

A new platform will allow fans with a basic antenna to watch all games that aren’t televised nationally, and will also feature a paid subscription-based streaming service that will also have unique team content. Previously, Smith said only 39% of households in Utah had access to watch Jazz games.

“That was probably more tech focused than what we all deal with than traditional media, because we’re like, ‘no, we’re going at it alone, we’re going to control our own content,'" he said. “That’s something that really hadn’t been done in the NBA the way we just did it. But it’s not uncommon or uncomfortable from what we come from.”

Speaking alongside Smith Monday was four-time NBA Champion Andre Iguodala, who played a key defensive role for years for the Golden State Warriors.

Iguodala said athletes are gradually disrupting the sports media industry too, sidestepping gatekeepers by using social media and podcasting to promote their brand and message.

“We’re going directly to consumer,” Iguodala said. “We’re learning our fan base, we want to know what they like, what they want from us, you know - how do we make a more intimate relationship? Now you’re seeing players in the e-commerce space. They’re selling merch, they’re going around that middleman, which was Nike. Kyrie Irving just signed a huge deal with Anta, which is a Chinese brand. He’s basically going to be running his own brand. He’s really looking for the manufacturing and the distribution.”

Smith said he hopes the new media rights deal can push the Jazz fanbase beyond Utah to Idaho, Wyoming, and even Seattle, which has been without an NBA team since the Supersonics left for Oklahoma City in 2008.