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Jeff Robbins: Utah's sports czar

Published: Saturday, March 22 2014 10:20 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?

Robbins: (Laughs) There were certainly no guarantees when we started. No one was sure if we’d survive, including me. They just said, “Hey, try and figure out a legacy strategy for the Olympics.” That was it.

Deseret News: In a nutshell, what was that strategy?

Robbins: Our thought process — and this wasn’t just me but a lot of people were involved in thinking this through — was you have all these venues that will be here after the games, why don’t we do something others are not doing in the Olympic movement and look at this "state of sport" concept? Work on continue doing all the great things that were part of the Olympics but also diversify. Become broader. It will help the state after the winter months and it will also help us so we’re not so reliant on World Cups or world championships in the winter sports deciding to come here or not. Those can be hard to get sometimes and they’re pretty expensive.

Deseret News: What’s made the strategy work?

Robbins: One thing that helped from the very beginning was that we didn’t own the Olympic venues. Once you own them, you have bias. We made the conscious decision not to have a direct role in ownership with any particular venue. We became more of a marketing, strategic arm, using sports to promote the state of Utah’s economy and image. We became the enabler that pulls everything together. This event needs funding, we’ll help there; this one needs sponsorship help, we’ll do what we can there; this one needs media attention, we can do that.

Deseret News: What has helped make this concept so effective in Utah?

Robbins: The cooperation has been huge. That’s our special sauce. You have certain pockets in other states that are doing things, but here you can look at the private sector, at our venues, at the public sector, at our pro sports franchises, at all the partners that we couldn’t do without, and it’s not fragmented. All these pieces are working together. The governors we’ve had from Leavitt to Walker to Huntsman to Herbert, they’ve all been supportive, and so has the Legislature. We’ve built this unique team here that’s allowed us to do things that are unique. Most places struggle, they get territorial, whereas we’ve been able to build bridges and do it together.

Deseret News: Are others taking notice?

Robbins: When we were in Sochi a few weeks ago with the governor’s delegation, a professor from George Washington University in its sports management program come up to me and said she was on her way to teach a class at the Russian university there. She said she was going to talk about what we’ve done in Salt Lake City. That was going to be her whole class. “Nobody’s done what you guys have done in terms of legacy,” she said.

Deseret News: What about the return on investment?

Robbins: For every dollar invested, these major events generate $5 or $6 back to our tax revenue, and that’s before you talk about the media and public relations value. So it’s a great investment. It’s a significant benefit to the state with a great ROI.

Deseret News: Does Utah’s enduring Olympic legacy mean another Winter Olympics in the future?

Robbins: I’ll break that into two categories. Should we bid again? I’d say absolutely. With what’s happened downtown, the light rail to the airport, the venues already in place, we’re better positioned and better able from an infrastructure standpoint than we’ve ever been. Will we get it? If the games become available and I were a betting person, I wouldn’t bet against it.

Deseret News: While we’re on the subject of the future, how about the NFL or Major League Baseball showing up in Utah?

Robbins: I think we’ve evolved to where at some point in time we could get those franchises. The real stickler is you’ve got to have venues. And who’s going to pay for them? When you’re talking about a Major League Baseball venue or an NFL stadium, you’re talking not tens of millions, you’re talking hundreds of millions, maybe a billion dollars. To me, that’s the biggest impediment to any of those major league sports. (At the same time that’s the advantage we have with the Olympics because we already have the infrastructure in place, largely, requiring only incremental improvements to most of them). How do you get to that 500 million to a billion dollars for a new stadium? I think our sports fans would love to see professional football or baseball here. But at what ticket price would they be willing to support such franchises and is there a sustainable business model for an owner to step forward and take the risk? Also, there would very likely have to be a significant public-private funding model created for a venue, something that can become very difficult and challenging on a number of fronts, because when the day’s done, make no mistake, there’s a business side to sport.

Email: benson@deseretnews.com

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