SALT LAKE CITY — Thirty years ago, after leaving one job due to one of the most shocking public tragedies in Utah history, Randy Rigby took another job that would make him part of one of the state’s most resounding public successes.
The job he left was with Rigby/Christensen, Inc., the financial investment firm he’d recently formed with close friend and business associate Steve Christensen in the summer of 1985. The men rented office space at the Judge Building in downtown Salt Lake City. On the morning of Tuesday, Oct. 15, Christensen got to the office first, 10 minutes ahead of Rigby, and picked up a package left in front of the door. When he opened it, a pipe bomb exploded, ending his life.
The bomber would soon be identified as document forger Mark Hofmann, the sociopath who suspected Christensen was about to reveal him as a fraud. That same day, as a ruse, Hofmann planted another bomb that killed Kathy Sheets, the wife of one of Christensen’s former employers, and then set off another bomb in an unsuccessful attempt to take his life.
The story sent shock waves around the world, sent Hofmann off to a life sentence at the Utah State Prison, and sent Rigby’s world into a tailspin. His best friend and mentor was gone, his business destroyed, his faith in humanity teetering.
That’s when the phone rang. A college friend from BYU, where both had studied business and finance, was on the line: Dave Checketts, president of the Utah Jazz. Checketts wondered if Randy would be interested in helping the Jazz — a business that had spent its first seven years in Utah running from bill collectors — by doing some financial analysis on a freelance basis.
Four months later, when the consulting job ended, Checketts asked Rigby if he’d be interested in joining the Jazz staff full time. Original owner Sam Battistone was in the process of selling the team outright to Larry H. Miller, the local car dealer who had purchased half the franchise the year before. There was hope the Jazz might finally be headed for stability off the court, and — with promising newcomers John Stockton and Karl Malone in the lineup — on the court as well.
The man in transition decided to join the franchise in transition.
How’d it all turn out? Last month, the newly retired president of the Utah Jazz sat down with the Deseret News for a conversation about his 30-year ride with a professional basketball franchise that was worth $25 million when he started and is valued at $875 million today.
DN: Thank you for you time today and your reflections. You and the Jazz grew up together, so to speak. How much different is today’s franchise than the one you joined in 1986?
RR: When I started, we had 12 players, three coaches, a trainer and an assistant trainer/equipment man. That was on the basketball side. On the business side we had 18 employees. Payroll for the team was $2.3 million. Today, there are well over 170 employees, probably 140 on the business side and another 30-plus on the basketball side, including 15 players, nine coaches, two trainers and an equipment manager, plus video people and scouts. The player payroll is well over $85 million.
DN: What’s it been like for you to watch all that growth over the past 30 years?
RR: It’s been a remarkable ride. When I first came, we were literally worried about making payrolls and making cashflow work. We were a smaller family back then and very close. We all knew Larry (Miller) was committed to keeping the team here, so everything was about putting it back in to allow us to have the ability to pay strong market-rate salaries, so we could have competitive teams and survive. That’s what drove us to build a new building, so we could sell more seats, put in suites, bring in concerts, handle our own food service and sell our own novelties. Everything was about growing the business and then utilizing the profits to stay competitive. That’s as true today as it was then.
DN: Your first impressions of Larry H. Miller.
RR: The first thing I saw was a competitor and a man who loved this community. He only had five or six car dealerships in the beginning, and he was leveraged on them, but he was willing to take risks and do everything it took. I liked how unpretentious he was. He was, "Hey, I’m in the trenches with you. We all have a job to do and I’m going to do my job and you guys do your job."
DN: After 20 years as vice president of sales and marketing, he named you the franchise’s president in 2006 to succeed Denny Haslam. Was that expected?
RR: (Laughs) It came totally out of the blue. Denny and I were going to have a meeting one morning in his office at 11. When I walked in, Larry was there. I looked around, wondering what was going on, and Larry turned to Denny and said, “Do you want to tell him or do you want me to?” After a pause, Larry turned to me and said, “Let me tell you why I said that,” and proceeded to tell a story about a time early in his career when he had an employee that wasn’t working out and needed to be let go. He’d asked his right-hand man if he wanted to take care of it or should he, the right-hand man said he’d do it, and after an hour and a half, the two men were still in the room talking. At that point, Larry said he walked in the room and said, “Things aren’t working out, so we’re splitting ways. Today’s your last day. I’m sorry, it’s over.” I said, “So Larry, are you trying to tell me something?” He had that big Cheshire cat grin of his and he said, “I knew that would get your attention.” Then he told me Denny had made his decision to retire and they’d selected me to be president of the Jazz and Larry H. Miller Sports & Entertainment Group. He set me right up.
DN: As president, and long before that, you were in charge of broadcasting, negotiating every television and radio deal for the franchise for 30 years. How much has the TV picture changed from when you began?
RR: I’ve seen us go from 12 TV games to having every Jazz game on TV other than one or two preseason games. When I first came (in '86) we had a contract with KSL to broadcast 12 games, that was it, and KSL wanted to cut that back because it was conflicting with their televising BYU sports. We knew we needed to extend our reach. The first deal I negotiated was in Denver with John Malone, one of the pioneers of cable TV. The deal was if we could start growing their subscriber base then they would start paying us, but at first, all they gave us was time. They didn’t pay us a penny. The next year they started paying us, but that first year we got nothing, just our foot in the door.
DN: How quick was the growth?
RR: We soon had the strongest local viewership in the NBA, along with the Chicago Bulls and Portland Trail Blazers. We were averaging a 12 rating during the regular season and a 21 share, and during the playoffs those numbers got as high as 35 percent ratings and a 70 percent share. Those are almost Super Bowl numbers. That cable TV deal is now in the tens of millions or dollars per year, versus nothing in the beginning.
DN: People just couldn’t get enough of the Jazz?
RR: There’s so much interest, and not just for television. Another thing I thought was very monumental for us was bringing in sports radio. I was kind of the pioneer on that in this marketplace and got a lot of pushback in the beginning. People said nobody would want to talk about the Jazz 24/7, 365 days a year. Driving home in my car and pushing multiple buttons and hearing people talking about the Jazz, that’s always a proud moment for me. And then walking into my home and the Jazz broadcast is on TV, and then the rebroadcast.
DN: In addition to the broadcasting deals, what other accomplishments rank among your proudest?
RR: Hiring Dennis Lindsey as general manager to replace Kevin O’Connor, who was also a great general manager for the Jazz, is something I'm very proud of. Getting a GM who thinks like your ownership, who has the same values and standards, that’s so important. Dennis was our perfect fit. I kept hearing rumors he wouldn’t want to come to Utah (from the San Antonio Spurs), but my attitude was if you don’t ask, you don’t get. I made a phone call, and the rest is history. I think Dennis will prove to be one of our greatest assets.
DN: Favorite part of the job?
RR: I loved putting deals together and loved working with top-notch people and giving them the tools and support to help them grow.
DN: Who were your role models?
RR: My first role model was Steve Christensen. He was such a great friend and example. He was a couple of years older than me and did 90 percent of the lifting in our deals, but he always gave more credit to everyone else than himself. I watched that and decided that was a lesson I wanted to remember when I was in a position of leadership myself.
DN: As an administrator on the business side, how agonizing was it watching Jazz games?
RR: Oh, man, you live and die with the wins and losses. You know what it means for the future, for the fan base, for season ticket renewals, for renegotiations of a cable deal, for sponsors, for everything. And after you’ve gone through a few seasons you know that losses in the beginning of the season can come back and haunt you. Everyone’s counting them in April, but they count just as much in November. I’ll tell you, some nights I would go home and it would take me three or four hours to unwind just to be able to go to bed. Sometimes I was stupid enough to watch the game again on the rebroadcast. Like it was going to change.
DN: Does it surprise you what people will pay to come to the arena and watch basketball?
RR: Yes! I mean, it’s a serious commitment financially. And some do it for 44 nights out of the year. Thank goodness for fans. I think we have the most educated, knowledgeable fan base in the NBA.
DN: Biggest challenge facing the Jazz and professional basketball?
RR: I think the constant challenge is finding financial balance. We cannot sustain the financial growth we’ve been seeing. I think we’ve started to hit the ceiling. We’re already seeing where families and younger people, the millennials, are cutting the cord more. I think the growth is going to have to be at a more reasonable rate.
DN: Will the Jazz stay in Utah?
RR: Even though there have been some changes at the corporate level, the Jazz are still owned by the Miller family and the Miller family takes very seriously that this franchise is a special asset they are stewards of and their commitment is to keep it as a viable asset that belongs in Utah.
DN: Will the Jazz win a championship in less time than it took the Cubs?
RR: We better. Dennis made a commitment we’re going to get one. That was the hardest thing about stepping down after 30 years because I want one of those NBA championships.
DN: What will you miss most?
RR: Being part of the team and working with incredible people in every aspect of our business, from the cleaning staff to the basketball operations to the management. I’m still doing some consulting and advising, and helping with the alumni to tie the past to the current. We’re putting together a fun thing for later this season, celebrating the first conference championship team from 25 years ago. The people I’ve been able to interact with, in every division of the organization, has been an enormous pleasure, and in limited ways, I’m looking forward to that continuing.