Advertisement

‘Utah is ripe for it’: Jazz owner Ryan Smith on bringing NHL to the Beehive State

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith, also part owner of Real Salt Lake, is interviewed during a news conference by RSL ownership at America First Field in Sandy on March 11, 2023.

What kind of leader are you going to be?

That’s a question that’s been chasing tech entrepreneur and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith around for his entire adult life.

He heard it from investors in Qualtrics, the wildly successful customer experience platform he co-founded in 2002; from fans and NBA executives when he purchased the Utah Jazz in 2020; from fans and MLS executives when he joined private equity titan David Blitzer in buying Real Salt Lake in 2022; and Smith is hearing it again as he appears on the cusp of adding an NHL franchise to his growing Smith Entertainment Group portfolio.

And when it came up during his recent appearance on the popular Canadian hockey podcast “32 Thoughts,” Smith offered a simple and succinct response.

“I hear this all the time, what kind of person are you, what kind of owner will you be,” Smith told “32 Thoughts” hosts Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman earlier this month. “There’s only one style and that’s you. I’m Ryan and that’s who I am, good and bad, you get it all.

“I don’t know everything, at all, and I just try to surround myself with really smart people who are fun to work with and who want to go do big things. That’s how I view the world.”

So far, Smith is nailing it when it comes to doing big things. He built Qualtrics into a category-defining tech powerhouse before selling the company to German software giant SAP in a record-breaking $8 billion deal in 2018, acquired the Jazz from the Miller family in 2020 for a reported $1.7 billion (and just hosted a very successful 2023 NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City) and joined Blitzer in buying up Real Salt Lake from embattled owner Dell Loy Hanson in 2022 in a transaction rumored to have been worth around $400 million.

Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith gestures and calls out to <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/nba/players/5769" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Lauri Markkanen;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Lauri Markkanen</a> of the Utah Jazz during the NBA All-Star Game in Salt Lake City at Vivint Arena on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Smith has made no secret of his interest in adding an NHL franchise to his SEG holdings and both he and NHL executives have referenced recent meetings to discuss how that might come to pass. At the moment, speculation is churning about the Arizona Coyotes relocating to Utah, an idea that is being powered at least in part by Arizona voters rejecting a proposal for a new Tempe hockey arena for the team in May.

When it comes to an easy NHL entry point from a cost perspective, the Coyotes may be the best deal in the league and came in dead last on a Sportico list of teams by valuation. According to that 2022 data, the Coyotes are worth about $450 million, a steep discount when compared to the top two priciest NHL brands, the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, both of which have built team valuations north of the $2 billion mark.

Related

When asked on the “32 Thoughts” podcast about the prospects of a Coyotes move to Salt Lake City, Smith kept the doors of possibility wide open without weighing-in on how close such a deal may, or may not, be.

“I think my message on that has been consistent,” Smith said. “We’re a partner (with the league), we’re here, we’re ready to help in any way we can.”

Smith also underscored his faith that “Utah is ripe for it” when it comes to its readiness to host a successful future NHL team and cited evidence he sees of pent-up demand for a hometown take on professional hockey.

“We’re already the winter sports capital of the world,” Smith said. “The Olympics are coming back, seven million people are coming here every year for winter sports and almost every single winter sport is headquartered here in one way or another.

“If you look at the success we’ve had and how much people want to go out ... it’s a very family-focused environment where people really want to go to games. We’ve had 240 straight sellouts at the Utah Jazz. Last year was not our best year as we went through a rebuilding and it didn’t matter. The place was full.”

Smith said he believes hockey is “mesmerizing a lot of people right now, the growth of it,” and he sees a potential Salt Lake NHL team as being able to emulate the high success of the league’s latest expansion efforts in Seattle and Las Vegas. The Vegas Golden Knights, founded in 2017, just won their first Stanley Cup, defeating the Florida Panthers 4-1 in the best-of-seven championship series.

Smith also noted that perceptions of the Salt Lake area as a “small market” when it comes to professional sports is out of date, and the region is much changed from the late ’90s version depicted in the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls documentary, “Last Dance,” when the Jazz lost back-to-back championship run-ins in ’97 and ’98 with the Bulls.

Fans watch as players warm up prior to the Arizona Coyotes’ home-opening NHL hockey game against the <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/teams/winnipeg/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Winnipeg Jets;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Winnipeg Jets</a> at the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena in Tempe, Ariz., Oct. 28, 2022. | Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

“It’s not a small market even though it’s still branded a small market,” Smith said. “Look at the growth and where we are. Looking at the NBA, we’re definitely creeping up into the top 10 in almost every category. We’re more mid-market or upper market when it comes to that.”

That market growth is certainly on the mind of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league officials who Smith said he has met with on multiple occasions and with whom he is in “constant communication.”

Smith acknowledged at a recent Jazz-related press conference that it “could be months or could be years” when it comes to securing an NHL team for Utah but many analysts believe the sooner scenario is more likely than the latter.

When that day comes, Smith said his first week on the job “will be finding the smartest people I know in hockey that I feel like will be fun to work with, that are competitive and want to win and bring them in.”

And, Smith offered this description of what will drive his leadership approach as the owner of a new Utah NHL team, the same inspirations he said he’s brought to the full gamut of his previous business and sports endeavors.

“You’re getting someone who cares deeply, deeply, deeply about their state,” Smith said on the “32 Thoughts” podcast. “I care about this community. I’m passionate about my family, I’m passionate about my faith, I’m passionate about golf, I’m passionate about my alma mater, and I’m passionate about my state. You can’t choose those, you either have it or not.”