Jeff Robbins: Utah's sports czar

Published: Saturday, March 22 2014 10:10 p.m. MDT

Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, is surrounded by sports.

Lee Benson

SALT LAKE CITY — In a lot of ways, not much has changed for Jeff Robbins. He’s still going to sporting events all the time, and when he’s not going to them he’s thinking about them, just like back in the day when he was a nationally ranked tennis player, first as a junior, then as a collegian — for a brief time he was ranked No. 1 in the country while playing for the University of Utah — and finally on the pro circuit.

Only now he’s more worried about his doubles partner than he is about himself.

That would be the state of Utah.

Robbins is president and chief executive officer of the Utah Sports Commission and has been since the organization was founded in 2000.

He was a 38-year-old rookie when then-Gov. Michael Leavitt borrowed his services from Novell Corp. in Provo, where Robbins was working as an executive. The 2002 Winter Olympic Games were coming to Utah, and the governor wanted someone with a sports and business background to help brainstorm what kind of legacy the state would leave after the games departed.

On paper, Robbins fit the bill — a lifelong competitive athlete with plenty of connections (his brother, FD, was a highly ranked tennis pro and has been tennis coach at the University of Utah for the past 28 years). He is a lifelong sports fan. Equally important, he had an MBA from the U., which he attained after his pro tennis run ended, and he rated a high recommendation from Novell’s CEO, Eric Schmidt (Google’s future CEO), who, in an altruistic burst of community spirit (and because Novell could afford it), agreed to “loan” Robbins to the state for one or two days a week while Novell continued to pay his salary.

Faced with a blank canvass, Robbins huddled with David Winder, the head of Leavitt’s economic development team, Al Mansell and others and came up with an idea to form a new arm of state government that would not only preserve Utah’s Olympic legacy but also would use the Olympic infrastructure and exposure to elevate the state in all things sport.

The Utah Sports Commission was born, along with the branding tagline: “Utah the State of Sport.”

No one knew if any of it would last — the commission, the strategy, or the tagline.

In the early days, when it was just Jeff and an assistant and the state assumed the responsibility of paying his salary, plenty of people thought the idea was far-reaching and overly ambitious.

Other Olympic cities didn’t do this. After their games were over, they used their Olympic venues for the Olympic sports they were built for. Either that or they tore them down.

But Robbins and a growing number of believers, including, not incidentally, the governor, persisted.

Fourteen years later, the Utah Sports Commission is a model of how to help preserve an Olympic legacy without going broke while at the same time significantly elevating the state’s overall sporting profile.

In the 14 years since its creation, the commission has helped host everything from international bicycle races to motocross championships to the Dew Tour to the PGA’s Web.com Tour to the annual State of Sport Awards to something called the Red Bull Rampage — nearly 600 such events in all, an average of more than 40 a year, and barely a sixth of them have been Olympic-related.

The Deseret News caught up for a question-and-answer session with a very busy Robbins, the state's sports czar, who oversees a staff of six to eight (depending on what’s going on) from a downtown office packed with swag and sports memorabilia.

Deseret News: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us today. You’ve been at this for 14 years now. Are you surprised it’s lasted that long?

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