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NBA VP of Business Affairs Val Ackerman is leading the league's efforts on behalf of USA Basketball's Women's team, as NBA Properties has responsibility for marketing both the USA men and women. USA Basketball, which has already hired a full-time women's coach, holds trials this month to select the first U.S. Women's Senior National Team. That team will train and play together starting September of '95 and be the foundation of the squad the U.S. will send to Atlanta. THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY spoke with Ackerman this week on the NBA's marketing plans and the recent boost the sport of women's basketball has received. Excerpts follow: THE DAILY: What attracted the NBA to take on the marketing of USA Basketball's Women's team? ACKERMAN: We have been serving as USA Basketball's exclusive marketing representative since 1991. In that capacity, our charge is to solicit corporate support and promote -- to the extent we can -- USA Basketball and its programs. For the most part, the bulk of our efforts have been directed to the men's side, and we really haven't had as much luck as we had hoped with the women's program -- principally, among other things, because the top women's team have been selected very close to the time that the event is taking place. That doesn't obviously give a whole lot of time for a company to develop the kind of program that we see on other levels. With this program, we're affording sponsors and licensees an opportunity to buy into something where there is a tremendous amount of lead time and a team that will be together for a long period of time. The other side is that we think women's basketball is a segment of the sport whose time has come. THE DAILY: What are your plans for the year leading up to Atlanta to build the interest in the team? Are fans going to know these players by the time the Olympics start? ACKERMAN: I hope so. We're not doing our job here if by this time next year people don't know who the top players on this team are. ... From USA Basketball's end, one of the key goals is to enhance the chances that the team that goes to Atlanta will win the gold medal. There will be some build-up to the Olympics to the extent that the players will use the year as a tryout, and that we hope will be an incentive for them. Over the next year, we expect to intersperse throughout the schedule a variety of promotional events -- not only stand-alone events, but events that will piggy-back on NBA activities. For example, the NBA All-Star Weekend is an event which we've had some discussion about internally as a natural to bring some or all of the team members in and capitalize on the media and events that go on there. The culmination would be a victory in Atlanta, and yet we think that there are a lot of places along the way to bring attention to the team, to the very good quality of play people will see, to the personalities on the team. THE DAILY: Is it possible to model your marketing strategy to the star-driven Dream Team approach? Are Rebecca Lobo and Sheryl Swoopes, for example, big enough stars to sell on their own? ACKERMAN: What we're finding more and more is that they are. If you've been to a top Division I women's college game lately, you'd be surprised at just how much clamoring there is around some of these top players now -- the number of young girls who gather around a Dawn Staley or a Lisa Leslie or a Sheryl Swoopes when they're doing a clinic. The kind of attention that these women are drawing, among young girls in particular, has been really, in my mind, astounding. There's clearly more and more television attention given to the women. The Final Four rating that the women achieved this year was, I think, a 5.7. It was the highest rated network daytime sports program that weekend. Which I think is no fluke. The interest is there. This program is going to give us an opprtunity to showcase the personalities. So, to some extent, it will be an application of some of the same principles that have been used on the men's side. THE DAILY: With the team being in essence a traveling squad, will there be more emphasis on local programs? ACKERMAN: There will be a very strong grassroots component. We're expecting that the team will play upwards of 15 or 20 games this fall against top NCAA schools. We're planning to turn each one of these stops into a couple-day layover where you have not only the game but a clinic, a retail appearance perhaps, a community outreach event where it's appropriate, media availability -- things of that nature that we think are all going to work even more toward giving young girls, kids -- anybody who's interested -- an opportunity to get close to the team. We want to make the team as accessible as we can in that way. We're in the process of soliciting support for the team. And I'm not really at liberty to give you the details on that right away. But the kinds of companies that we've spoken to, at least several of them, have a history of these types of events -- clinics and skills exhibitions. THE DAILY: Can you speak generally in terms of whether the interest comes from NBA marketing partners or newer, different companies? ACKERMAN: Our sponsors already have made commitments to USA Basketball through 1996. So, we think that among that group we're going to find interest, as well as among existing USA Basketball licensees -- many of which also have relationships with the NBA. In addition, we think there is a market out there of -- I'll call them non-conflicting sponsors -- in various categories that have demonstrated a particular interest in women's basketball and women's sports. We expect we may be able to bring them in as well. THE DAILY: Who do you think is driving this new-found interst in women's sports and women's basketball? Is it male basketball fans tuning into the women's game, or is it women sports fans who are making their presence known more? ACKERMAN: Our research is telling us some interesting things. We've learned that more women watch women's college games than watch NBA games or men's college games. But there are still more men that watch women's basketball than women. It should be noted that there are more women watching women's games than ever before. In terms of the in-arena demographics, if you were to go to a women's college game you'd see, believe it or not, more and more seniors. It's become a family event, parents bringing young daughters. But the demographic and the target is certainly skewed towards females with a program like this. THE DAILY: Are there long-term goals beyond '96 for the NBA or USA Basketball in terms of a women's pro league? ACKERMAN: Right now, there aren't. But -- actually, I won't say "but" -- a lot of us here believe this program really will tell us a lot about the extent of media and fan and corporate and television interest in women's basketball. I'd almost like to have this discussion a year from now because I think we're going to learn a lot more in the next year than we know now about what the viability is for additional business projects in this whole area. THE DAILY: How does all this fit into the NBA's general approach toward selling basketball to women? Is this program going to be the centerpiece of the NBA's focus in that regard for the next year or so? ACKERMAN: First, we believe the program is very consistent with our overall mission, which is to help to develop the sport of basketball wherever it's played, at whatever level, whatever gender. We think that anything that helps develop the sport is good for everybody involved. So from our end, this certainly fits in from a long-term standpoint. As to the centerpiece question, within the last year or so we have set up a women's marketing division within our consumer products group. The charge of the people in those areas is to focus on ways for the NBA to better reach out to women, principally as consumers of NBA products. This program will fit in very well with what others in the company are trying to do in terms of women's marketing that's specific to the NBA.