SBJ/April 4-10, 2011/People and Pop Culture

Champions: Val Ackerman, hoops ambassador

She’s devoted her life to the business of basketball, and ‘there is no one who has done more,’ says the NBA’s David Stern

PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
The WNBA’s founding president, Ackerman is still very much in the game with USA Basketball and FIBA.
It’s Saturday morning during the recent NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, and a coterie of basketball dealmakers has gathered for breakfast at the swanky Beverly Wilshire hotel.

This is where business gets done: High-octane owners, executives, and player agents plotting over $22 bagels and the smell of freshly ground coffee.
No one seems more in her element than Val Ackerman, who moves easily through the room greeting friends and colleagues.

“I remember when I first joined the NBA and my first phone message was from [NBA legend] Jerry West asking me to call him,” Ackerman said with a laugh. “I mean, it was Jerry West! I saved the message and taped it to my refrigerator at home.”

Today, after nearly 25 years in basketball, the highly accomplished Ackerman, 51, can stake her own claim within the industry.

She is among the first wave of women to climb the NBA’s executive ranks, helping lead the way for a generation of women to play key roles in boardrooms throughout sports.

In her own words

“In my experience, the most successful women in business are part-female and part-male, meaning they’re both collaborative and tough. For the women who have children, time-management skills are a must, and they simply have to be prepared to make family sacrifices to advance.”
 
“The most commonly asked question I get from young women seeking advice is how I got started. I tell them it was luck and timing. I came into the NBA in 1988 as a staff attorney after being tipped off by a friend that a new position was opening up in the legal department. I had to survive interviews with [NBA President of  League Operations] Joel Litvin, [former NBA executive and current NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman and [former NBA Deputy Commissioner] Russ Granik before getting in for my last interview with [NBA Commissioner] David Stern. I was as nervous as could be, but I guess he liked something I said, because I got the job.”
 
“If people are looking to work in sports, I tell them that they need to figure out their point of entry, and that points of entry may differ depending on the subject matter. I also tell them to be persistent and know who the key people within the key organizations are.”
Not only is she the founding president of the WNBA, but she also served as the first female president of USA Basketball and remains a board member of the group. She is the U.S. representative to FIBA, is a member of the board of governors on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and is a member of the board of directors for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. On the collegiate level, Ackerman is a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics and is on two NCAA committees: the honors committee and the women’s basketball competition committee.

She will be inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in June.

“She is an extraordinary protector of the sport and a promoter of its values,” said NBA Commissioner David Stern. “She is involved in every single aspect of her sport, and there is no one who has done more.”

Defining her career is her reputation as a supremely talented business veteran who expertly has carved her own path in a distinctly male-dominated business.

“It’s about having authenticity and being capable,” Ackerman said. “Many women have asked me for advice, and it’s then that you realize the position that you are in.”

Helping pave the way for women in sports was hardly a reality when Ackerman began her standout basketball career at the University of Virginia. The New Jersey native began her freshman year on the
women’s basketball team sharing half of the team’s grand total of one full scholarship while across the gym stood the high-flying men’s team led by Ralph Sampson, a group that flew charter to every game.

“They were all on scholarship and the differences were glaring,” Ackerman said.

By the time Ackerman graduated in 1981 as a three-time captain and two-time academic All-American, most of the women’s players at Virginia had been given scholarships as colleges increased Title IX compliance.
Ackerman played at Virginia when the contrast between men’s and women’s athletics was stark.

After playing a year in France, where she earned $800 per month, Ackerman, who had always planned on attending law school, returned to the U.S. and earned her law degree at UCLA. She then took a job in 1986 with a Wall Street law firm.

“It was the furthest I had been away from sports,” she said. “I had applied to the legal departments of the NBA and other leagues, but none of the opportunities were there for me. It was the mid-1980s and Wall Street was red hot.”

But in 1988, Ackerman returned to where she felt most comfortable: basketball. Now armed with some legal experience, she heard about a job opening at the NBA and was hired as a staff attorney, where she began working on salary cap issues and other key contract work. Eighteen months later, NBA Commissioner Stern summoned Ackerman to his office.

“I was terrified,” Ackerman said. “But he asked me to come work directly for him.”

PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Trio of leaders: NBA Commissioner David Stern, Ackerman, and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman
Stern named Ackerman as his special assistant at the age of 30, and she soon was exposed to a variety of issues confronting the league.

“She had a very broad sensitivity to all of the issues that involved the business of the NBA, our internal management issues and our external messaging issues,” Stern said. “She came to really know the way we thought and she shaped the way we thought.”

The work was challenging and fulfilling, but after she became pregnant in 1992, Ackerman began to feel isolated. The biggest problem wasn’t working in a mostly man’s world; it was the added difficulty of working while also being a mother.

“I couldn’t really talk to anyone about it and I felt alone,” she said. “I had to fight through the expectations that I wouldn’t be coming back [after giving birth.]”

Owners' respect helped get WNBA off the ground

The best known of Val Ackerman’s numerous achievements is the launch of the WNBA. It also stands as her most challenging accomplishment.

It was Ackerman who played a key role with a team of other NBA executives entrusted by NBA Commissioner David Stern to create his vision for professional women’s basketball.
 
“She was the master of execution and detail,” Stern said of Ackerman’s approach in launching the eight-team WNBA in 1997.

Persuading NBA owners to buy into the concept developed into a road show of sorts involving Ackerman as president of the upstart league; Adam Silver, who is now NBA deputy commissioner; current Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts; and former league executive Gary Stevenson. Together, they’d travel around the NBA, making their pitch in front of the owners.

“It was interesting to watch the owners’ reactions,” Stevenson said. “It could put 20 new dates in their buildings in the summer and develop a brand new set of fans, because 90 percent of the WNBA fans were separate from NBA fans.”

Ackerman’s ability to forge relationships with NBA owners ultimately brought buy-in.

“Val had put in her time as a league lawyer and she had earned their respect,” Stevenson said. “She knew how the NBA worked and how the interface between marketing and television worked. ... On top of that was that she had a player’s mentality.”

When the league debuted in 1997, Ackerman had dispelled any doubts about her leadership ability.

“She was an extraordinary team member who helped build consensus and was embedded in the formation of a sense of collective ownership,” Stern said. “She inspired the confidence of her colleagues that this was a person who could lead successfully.”
— John Lombardo
While Ackerman struggled with the challenges of balancing her job and her family life, her career took a fortuitous turn when Stern asked her to be part of an internal NBA group in 1995 to study the development of a women’s basketball league. It was during the run-up to the USA Women’s Olympic “Dream Team” at the 1996 Atlanta Games, where the women’s team won gold to cap a perfect 60-0 record since the team was created. The dominating performance raised the profile of women’s basketball, and the NBA was looking to capitalize on the momentum.

“The vision was that we could replicate the Dream Team,” Ackerman said. “Our women’s team became a linchpin for the [WNBA]. The crowds were building and there was increased media attention so it wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ anymore.”

The first major decisions were to establish a schedule and to name the league.

“We knew we were going to play in the summer and that we were going to call it the WNBA,” Ackerman said. “There really was no major discussion on what to call it. We were very much going to capitalize on the NBA.”

The eventual launch of the WNBA was under way, and Ackerman knew she had arrived when Stern named her president in 1996 of the upstart league that launched in 1997 with great expectations and with some public skepticism.

The startup hurdles were huge, as Ackerman and other league executives toiled over issues ranging from the colors of the WNBA basketball to convincing NBA owners to buy into the concept.

“We felt some skepticism, but it wasn’t my job to worry about it,” Ackerman said. “My style was to include everybody. We had weekly staff meetings where I invited every department. We had a room full of people sitting on credenzas, but it was critical to let people know what was happening.”

Through it all, Ackerman made a deep and lasting impression on her fellow executives.

“If you were locked in a room and had to come up with the person who should be president of a new women’s sports league, you have come up with Val,” said Rick Welts, president and CEO of the Phoenix Suns who was a league executive when he worked with Ackerman in creating the WNBA. “We knew we had a real window coming out of the ’96 Games, and it was a fortuitous thing for the league to place her in the position. It was a furious pace and she had to do everything from scratch. She by nature is a leader but also someone who is very inclusive. She was very open to ideas."

Ackerman also had to make the difficult transition from working as an out-of-the spotlight league lawyer to becoming the public face of the new league, which also at the time was competing against another women’s professional basketball league, the ABL.

“She went from having no microphone to having one every single day,” said Gary Stevenson, a former NBA executive who also worked on the WNBA rollout. “Launching a new league is not easy but she was remarkably steady. It was remarkable what she did and the style in which she did it. It was groundbreaking stuff, but yet it was never about her.”

NBAE / GETTY IMAGES
During those early WNBA years, Ackerman constantly was on the road in building the league. At each stop, she would hold pregame receptions for fans and season-ticket holders, asking for input and gauging the brand.

“I got asked hard questions, like why didn’t we pay our players more, but I felt it was critical for fans to hear from me,” she said. “As I grew into the job, I felt a sense of responsibility to the various groups in the game.”

The pressure to perform under Stern’s exacting demands were enormous given that the new league was aligned with the NBA’s brand.

“We had to be as close to perfect as it could be,” said Ackerman, who ultimately led the league from that launch in 1997 until February 2005, when she departed to fulfill a burning need to spend more time with her husband, Charlie, and two daughters.

What proved frustrating for Ackerman was keeping the WNBA on its early track of growth. During its first season, the league averaged 9,700 fans per game, followed by a 1998 season when it averaged around 10,000 fans per game. Though buoyed by such early success, the WNBA could not maintain the growth. Average attendance began to fall, and teams in Cleveland and Miami, among others, were shuttered.

“When we launched, we didn’t have any scientific projections for attendance, and our early success was a blessing and a curse,” Ackerman said. “The bar was set so high. The inability to hold onto those early attendance levels and to see teams folding was heartbreaking.”

On a larger scale, while launching the WNBA stands as one of Ackerman’s biggest accomplishments, she also had paid a price.

“Every year was like a dog year,” she said. “Selling a dream was replaced by the harsh realities of the marketplace. But leaving was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. I didn’t want to let David [Stern] down.”

The league struggled for acceptance and prosperity, but Ackerman had made her mark. When she left, the WNBA had grown from its inaugural eight teams to having 13 teams while adopting a new independent ownership model.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING

    “Val was one of the early high-level executives to reach the president of a league, and in that regard, she is a trailblazer.”
NBA Commissioner David Stern

    “All good leaders have to confront what needs to be confronted, and one of Val’s good qualities is that she was never afraid of the issues.”
Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany, who worked with Ackerman during her tenure as president of USA Basketball.

    “One great part of Val’s ability is that she is singular in her purpose. It wasn’t as if we were launching a women’s league. Rather, it was that we were launching an important new business initiative — which happened to be a women’s league.”
Former NBA executive Gary Stevenson, who worked with Ackerman on the WNBA launch.

    “She created an environment that made everyone feel special about the [WNBA] launch. It was a bold move to launch a new league, it raised the bar of performance, but Val was up to the task. She never wavered in driving through her ideas.”
Phoenix Suns President and CEO Rick Welts, who worked with Ackerman on the WNBA launch.

    “She played, knows and loves the game. She has excellent vision and is respected. She has led the charge on some impressive assignments, but she is disarming. When you first meet her, you like her.”
Tom Jernstedt, former NCAA executive vice president, who preceded Ackerman as president of USA Basketball.

    “She has, obviously, an American hat on [and a particular passion for women’s basketball] when she sits in our board, but she also views issues and advises the board on what is in the interest of FIBA and of its development from a business perspective.”
FIBA Secretary General Patrick Baumann

“I remain hopeful about the WNBA,” she said. “The product is better, but the landscape is hard. I am a believer in moving on. I did what I could and hope there are better eyes than mine on it.”

Her leadership ability did not go unrecognized. Already a member of the USA Basketball board since 1989, Ackerman was named president of USA Basketball, serving from 2005-08. It was a job that did not require nearly as much travel or time demands as running the WNBA, allowing Ackerman to spend more time with her family while still continuing her career.

She needed all her executive and political skills as she led a major reorganization of USA Basketball, which she viewed as too unwieldy and needed to become more sharply focused to make speedier decisions.

The board was reduced from 25 members to 11 while Ackerman also added new committees to help expand youth and women’s basketball programs.

“One of the major objectives was to reduce the size of the board, and it was not an easy assignment,” said Tom Jernstedt, former longtime NCAA executive vice president who served as USA Basketball president prior to Ackerman. “She handled that undertaking very skillfully. Anyone who came into the room perhaps questioning her background or her knowledge saw that quickly disappear. Val knows the game, and she earned everyone’s respect in an impressive manner.”

Big Ten Conference Commissioner Jim Delany, who served on the USA Basketball board with Ackerman, said it was her ability to create consensus that drove USA Basketball to adopt the proposed changes under her term.

“She sees the big picture, whether that is about the WNBA or rules and policies related to USA Basketball,” Delany said. “At USAB, she was very collaborative as we moved to a new model. Relentless is an overused word, but if Val thinks she is right, she won’t roll over. Changing USA Basketball was no walk in the park. There were strong personalities, but she wasn’t afraid to lead and she understood when it was time to fold or play her cards.”

Whether it was cutting the size of the board or adding more youth programs, Ackerman said she felt a greater sense of freedom at USA Basketball.

“It was a growth opportunity for me because I really had the chance to call my own shots,” she said. “But I also felt very responsible that it also be a group effort. I was making presentation after presentation. Leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

At the same time Ackerman was restructuring USA Basketball, she was working on international basketball issues, serving as the U.S. representative to FIBA’s Central Board, where she was re-elected last year to a second term that runs through 2014.

It’s a global governing body that has mandates for women representation, but the Eurocentric FIBA does not have a reputation for throwing fervent support behind women’s basketball.

“She has a very pragmatic, business-oriented and direct style of providing views or asking questions that are, at times, in an international body with a lot of persons from different corners of the world and cultures, not part of the typical diplomatic exchanges,” said Patrick Baumann, secretary general of FIBA. “But these, together with her own ideas, are addressing issues and opening up debates on items.”

Ackerman is confronting the challenges regarding her leadership role in FIBA but she is making an impact. Consider that last year Ackerman was instrumental in creating FIBA’s first women’s global basketball conference held in the Czech Republic.

“There are some cultural differences,” she said. “But what I am trying to do is help women’s basketball.”

Based on her track record, count on Ackerman to drive more change in international basketball just as she has on the collegiate and professional levels.

“There is no one else in basketball with her set of experience and credentials,” Stern said. “She is spending an enormous amount of time dealing with knotty issues. But Val is smart, talented and she is a good person. That is a winning combination.”

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