Long before she was overseeing 22 men’s and women’s sports as the commissioner of the Big East Conference, Val Ackerman was playing four of them.
Growing up outside of Trenton, N.J., Ackerman was a year-round athlete; she played field hockey in the fall, basketball in the winter, ran track in the spring, and swam during the summer. She also learned about the administrative side of sports just by observing her own family. Ackerman’s grandfather was the director of athletics for the state of New Jersey, while her father served as athletics director at her own high school.
“My dad and grandfather were very impactful on me in a dormant way,” Ackerman told Excelle Sports.
Basketball was the only sport Ackerman continued to play at a competitive level in college. Ackerman enrolled at the University of Virginia, where she split the one and only scholarship for women’s basketball. Her arrival in Charlottesville in the fall of 1977 came just five years after the implementation of Title IX.
During her four-year Cavalier career, Ackerman was a three-year captain and was twice named an Academic All-American. She was also the school’s first female basketball player to score 1,000 points. Fortuitously, Ackerman parlayed her basketball career at Virginia into a season of professional basketball overseas in France after her college graduation.
Ackerman says her experience playing professional basketball abroad added to her knowledge base about the sport and more specifically, women’s basketball.
“It was the semester abroad I never had,” Ackerman said. “It was my first big adult move. Being able to travel all around France was a great experience. But it was also very isolating being alone in a country and not speaking any French.”
After her one season of professional basketball in France, Ackerman took the LSAT in Paris and enrolled in law school in the fall of 1982 at UCLA. Ironically, it wasn’t until law school that Ackerman realized she wanted to have a career in sports.
Not that it happened right away after graduation. Instead, she came back to the East Coast and started on Wall Street as an attorney. After a few years in the financial sector, she finally landed in sports at the NBA in its legal department.
After starting at the NBA as an attorney, Ackerman served as a special assistant to league commissioner David Stern. Later, she was promoted to Vice President of Business Affairs. Despite being a woman working for a men’s professional sports league, Ackerman said she always felt like she belonged.
“I never felt like I was looked at any differently because I’m a woman,” Ackerman said. “Sometimes I would have my ‘OWITR’ moments, which is short for only woman in the room. I still have some of those moments today, but I never felt like I was treated differently.”
It was through her experience at the NBA that Ackerman began working with USA Basketball. As a board member, Ackerman played a role in allowing NBA players to play for Team USA in the Olympics for the first time in 1992. That team would come to be known as “The Dream Team” and captured gold in Barcelona.
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But what Ackerman is most proud of during her time at USA Basketball was the formation of the Women’s National Team program. Looking to further promote and grow women’s basketball, Ackerman helped form the team in 1995.
Leading up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the women’s team went 52-0 in international competition. When the team made its Olympic debut, the women went undefeated to win the gold medal. Most importantly, it was the perfect platform for Ackerman’s next project: the formation of the WNBA.
“We saw it as a test case for a professional women’s basketball league,” Ackerman said. “It all turned out well. There was nothing like the Olympics showcasing women’s basketball and leading up to the launch of the WNBA.”
In the spring of 1997, the WNBA kicked off. Ackerman, who was the driving force behind the formation of the league, was named its first president. No professional women’s basketball league had made it yet in the U.S., but that didn’t worry Ackerman.
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“We were very optimistic about the league,” Ackerman said. “We had a different model from previous women’s leagues. We were going to play our games in the summer and had deals with three TV networks. We had the sophistication and the know how to make it work. Plus having the NBA behind it was huge.”
Ackerman also lends a lot of credit to the gold medal-winning Olympic team for the WNBA’s kick-off.
“Women’s sports was cresting,” Ackerman said. “The atmosphere was very conducive. We had the right plan.”
As WNBA president for 10 years, Ackerman said her proudest accomplishment was the actual start of the league.
Forbes’ The Most Powerful Women In Sports: Val Ackerman, Commissioner for the Big East Conference pic.twitter.com/WYM7Yv6z3n— Angela Lewis (@AngelaRLewis) May 21, 2016
“The launch of the league itself was a huge deal,” Ackerman said. “Getting it off the ground itself was a mammoth effort. I like to think we paved the way for women’s sports. I have a lot of pride looking back at what we accomplished.”
Ackerman believes that, over 20 years after its formation, the WNBA is here to stay.
“The quality of play is extraordinary now,” Ackerman said. “We have some incredibly-gifted players coming out of college and making an impact immediately. The players are great role models too. But NBA support remains critical.”
After stepping down as WNBA president in 2005, Ackerman became the first female president of USA Basketball. While she was president of the WNBA, Ackerman had remained a board member at USA Basketball. Since 1996, the women’s team had captured gold in 2000 and 2004. The men’s team captured gold in 1996 and 2000 as well, but disappointingly finished with the bronze medal in 2004
But during Ackerman’s presidency from 2005-2008, the men’s “Redeem Team” of 2008 captured gold in Beijing. Not to mention the women’s team won its fourth straight gold medal. Both teams would win gold again in London in 2012, the last Olympics that Ackerman served as a board member.
In 2013, Ackerman returned to collegiate athletics for the first time since she hooped at Virginia when she was named the first commissioner of the rechristened Big East Conference.
She helped grow women’s basketball at the professional and Olympic level; now she’s tasked with further developing women’s sports at the collegiate level in a conference driven by men’s basketball.
Ackerman said she’s proud of how women’s sports have developed at the collegiate level since her playing days at Virginia.
“The glass is mostly half full,” Ackerman said. “Women are now getting the same benefit and experience at the collegiate level as men.”
Citing high graduation rates among student-athletes and that more than half of the conference’s sports are offered to women, Ackerman believes that the Big East is at the forefront of empowering female student-athletes at the collegiate level.
“Athletics at the university level are the means to an end – one stepping stone on a path to enriching the world.” –Val Ackerman pic.twitter.com/ceEHMfV352— BIG EAST Conference (@BIGEAST) June 7, 2017
But while Ackerman says that more women are getting into the sports business now than when she started, Ackerman believes it’s not good enough.
“Women are grossly under-represented at the management and board level internationally,” Ackerman said. “There needs to be an improvement. We need to have more women in leadership in sports. The people making the hiring decisions have to bring in women. It’s then up to women to perform, get themselves into positions to be hired, and move up. Once they get their opportunity, women have to shine.”
Other than leading a Division I athletic conference that is surviving without football as its main sport, one of Ackerman’s favorite things about being commissioner of the Big East is being able to further promote women’s sports.
“I love that this role allows me to contribute to women’s sports,” Ackerman said. “It gives me a platform to continue helping out to something I’ve always had a passion for.”
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