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The NBA’s Utah Jazz has been owned for close to 35 years by Utah businessman Larry H. Miller or his family. But in a move that stunned locals, the Miller family announced today that it would sell a controlling stake in the team to Ryan Smith, cofounder of tech company Qualtrics.
So who is the new owner of the Utah Jazz?
Here are the high points: Smith is young (42), loves basketball, and has signaled a strong commitment to social justice, particularly racial justice issues. And of course, he’s very wealthy.
Prior Jazz owner Miller was born in Salt Lake City and built a business empire starting with car dealerships, then expanding to a television station and movie theaters before purchasing the Jazz in 1985. The price tag was reportedly $22 million for 100% of the Jazz. Miller died in 2009 and passed control of the Jazz to his family.
The contrasts between Miller and Smith start with that price tag: Smith’s takeover of the Jazz will cost him a reported $1.66 billion. It’s not entirely clear how large the Smith’ stake will be, though the team was recently estimated to be worth $1.55 billion by Forbes. However much he got, Smith paid nearly thirty times what Miller paid for the entire team, in inflation-adjusted terms.
Smith can afford the markup. He co-founded Qualtrics, with his brother and father, a marketing professor at Brigham Young University, in 2002. In 2018, the company was sold to German business software giant SAP for $8 billion, though it remains an independently run unit and Smith still serves as CEO. The founders’ share of that payday was estimated at $3 billion, and Forbes now estimates Ryan Smith’s personal net worth at $1.3 billion.
What exactly did SAP buy? Qualtrics started off by offering customer surveys online, but has expanded considerably. It’s now best known for its so-called “customer experience management” software, which brings together a variety of data sources, including surveys, social media chatter, and direct customer feedback. The software is meant to track both broad sentiment about a company’s products and services, and specific customer interactions, such as repair or refund requests. One of Qualtrics’ closer competitors is Salesforce, which draws on a similarly broad array of data sources to help companies manage sales and customer relationships.
As Fortune detailed when we named him to its 40 Under 40 list in 2016, Smith is a lifelong Utah resident and, like the majority of Utah residents, a Mormon. He’s been a major booster of the local business community, helping found a coalition of central Utah tech businesses called Silicon Slopes.
Smith has been notably active on social justice causes. In June, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests, Smith announced he would personally match donations by Qualtrics employees to legal defense funds for the movement. In a 2017 Forbes profile, he strategizes with fellow founders about how to attract more diversity to Utah.
Those commitments should serve Smith well as an NBA owner, given recent collisions between sport and politics that included a brief NBA player strike in August in response to police shootings of African-Americans. They also mark something of a contrast with Miller, who in 2005 raised the ire of activists by refusing to show Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain at theaters he owned because it depicted a gay relationship.
Smith also clearly loves basketball. He has a court in his basement, as well as in the lobby of Qualtrics’ headquarters building in Orem, Utah. Smith’s Twitter feed is sports-heavy, and he has partnered with the Jazz before, including a sponsorship this year that helped raise $25 million for cancer research.