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Why did Ryan Smith buy the Utah Jazz? A look at what brought the Qualtrics CEO to the NBA

By Ryan Miller, KSL.com | Posted - Oct. 28, 2020 at 7:01 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Ryan Smith, Qualtrics CEO and co-founder and the soon-to-be Utah Jazz owner, was blunt in his first remarks after the announcement he would be taking over the team.

"There's no secret about my interest in the NBA. And there's really no secret about my interest in the Jazz," Smith said.

No secret because Smith's connection with the Jazz and the league has been very visible.

Qualtrics is an NBA jersey patch sponsor (the company donated the patch to their charity branch, 5 For The Fight) and the company has had deals with both the NBA and the Jazz. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has appeared at Qualtrics' conferences, and Smith has been in ads alongside Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell. Oh, and if that isn't enough to prove his love of basketball, there's also a court in both his home and at Qualtrics' Provo office.

He once dreamed of playing for the team; now he gets to run it.

Qualtrics was founded in Provo in 2002 by brothers Ryan and Jared Smith. It was initially conceived as a tool to put surveys and questionnaires on the internet so that anyone could conduct market research. It has since evolved into a tech giant. Qualtrics has grown into an analytical platform (which some Jazz fans will love to hear) that helps companies assess performance with both clients and employees — and it's used by companies everywhere.

That type of growth didn't happen overnight. Smith and Qualtrics bootstrapped their way to success and didn't raise any outside capital until 2012. In January, Smith credited Utah's tech community for helping raise him up.

"Everything I got came from Utah. ... It's this ecosystem that has helped our organizations be successful," Smith said.

And it's hard to find someone as successful as Smith. In 2018, he made a deal that turned heads throughout the financial world: He sold Qualtrics for an astounding $8 billion to German multinational software corporation SAP — with a significant chunk of that price tag going to the Smith family — and stayed on as CEO.

So, yeah, Smith has the funds to compete with other NBA owners. But he didn't want to own any team; he had his heart set on one specifically. In October 2019, in the media room of the Zions Bank Basketball Campus, Smith was asked on the radio if he had any interest in owning a sports franchise.

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"I mean, there's a lot of people who like to just go buy a team anywhere and do that. You know, I have some friends who have done that. And then they're living four time zones away from their team. And that's just not that interesting to me," Smith said. "I like Utah and something around here. But timing has to be right."

The timing is now right for the 42-year-old Smith. He built a company he started in his parents' basement into one that has 25 offices around the world and over 3,000 employees. And with the intent to go public, which was announced in July, plans are in place to add 5,000 more employees by 2023.

Now, he gets a chance to build the Utah Jazz, the team he grew up watching and wanting to play for, into a champion.

"Ryan Smith always says when there's a problem, when there's an issue, we need to put the best and brightest minds on that," Lori Kun, head of social impact at Qualtrics, told KSL.com in May.

He's done that in the tech world, constantly adapting his company to continue to be successful (no, Qualtrics is not just a survey company). And he's done that with 5 For The Fight — not just by raising money, but by funding fellowships to try and find a cure for cancer.

He's helped out small businesses — buying 50 meals per day at local restaurants to help them deal with the coronavirus — and offered a work-from-home program for free to businesses (9,000 companies used it). And Qualtrics has developed a tool to help distribute a COVID-19 vaccine.

Smith has already created a legacy of his own right in Utah. Now, he gets to add to another's.

"I was sitting there this week with my kids in a Junior Jazz program that you guys started, with hundreds of kids running around; the legacy that you have created is untouchable," Smith told current Jazz owner Gail Miller on Wednesday," and we're all just incredibly grateful for that. The Jazz are a gift to this whole community — and that's how we view it, that's 100% how we view this."

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