Valerie Ackerman, Commissioner, Big East Conference; Former Founding President, Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA)
Val Ackerman is the former president of the WNBA, a position she held from 1995-2006. In 2006, Ackerman stepped down in order to spend time with her two children (then 9 and 11). Most recently, Ackerman serves as a professor of Sports Management at Columbia and a consultant to the NHL about retaining women in ice hockey. Prior to her work with the WNBA Ackerman was the staff attorney for the NBA. She worked as staff attorney from 1988 until her appointment to WNBA president in 1995.
Read Ackerman’s full bio at the end of the LifeChat.
How sports can be leveraged for personal and societal impact
- Everything we’ve seen about how sports, and participation, leads to certain life skills one can use later, and so on, can be deployed in other places if cultural barriers are lifted and softened.
- The good news is we see more women making decisions; however, the sobering news is that there are still many more men than women functioning in those roles.
- The women who do the best in business are very good at what they do; they need to know about sports, but also about their subject matter such as law, finance, marketing.
- Change is coming. Progress is coming
Managing your time while working in the sport industry
- Women who succeed in sports make sacrifices
- You need to learn to pick your fights, and when you do, to have a sense of humor about it
- You can’t go in with any illusions about how to balance work and family
LifeChat with Valerie Ackerman:
How did you enter into the sport industry?
My point of entry into sports was as a lawyer. I had always dreamed of going to law school. When I graduated, I had a vague sense of other career options. I wanted to be a litigator, but most of all I was always fascinated with the idea of being a lawyer. Going to law school was very much a part of my life plan.
It was in law school that I began to focus on linking law and sports in a professional way. When I graduated from law school, I tried to get a job working in sports law, but was shut down at every turn. I would write letters to leagues, sports agencies, and players associations to see if I could get a job, and I got a lot of polite ‘No’s.’ It was because they were looking to hire experienced lawyers and I wasn’t experienced; I was just right out of school. The advice I got was to get experience being a lawyer, and then later on I would become a much more attractive candidate.
So, that’s what I did. I went to work at a firm on Wall Street for two years. The work had nothing to do with sports – it had to do with corporate transactions, mergers and acquisitions, bank credit agreements and things that couldn’t be further from sports, but it was a great legal experience at a very high-end firm. And that is what gave me the qualifications I needed as a lawyer.
It was at my law firm, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, a major global New York City firm, that I met my husband-to-be. When we decided to get married, I left the firm and he stayed. That’s really when I picked up on getting the sports-law job that had eluded me when I graduated from school. I wanted to get in the door at the National Basketball Association (NBA).
How did you go about doing that?
Luck and timing. At the time I applied, they had created a new entry-level position called staff attorney. I knew a lawyer there who had tipped me off that they were looking for new hires. At that point, I had been on Wall Street for two years, I had played sports, and I was a woman – they were probably looking for diversity. And again, I was on the inside track because I knew someone who was able to get my name in the ring. After the interview process, I was very lucky to be offered the job.
The person who hired me was Gary Bettman, who was then the general counsel at the NBA. I had the opportunity to work with him for a few years before he left to become the commissioner of the NHL.
Many people at the NBA had law backgrounds: Russ Granik (deputy commissioner), Adam Silver (now deputy commissioner), David Stern (commissioner), Gary. David really built his staff around lawyers, although they were not all practicing lawyers. I fit that category.
I really attribute it to luck and timing. I got my law degree, I put in my time at a well-known firm, and I came along at a time when the NBA was looking to expand its legal department. I was waiting in the wings.
How would you describe your job at the NBA?
My path at the NBA started out in the legal department. I was working on a whole variety of matters. Within just a few months, I started working on the business side, as well as the legal side. I started working with Russ on some projects for which he was responsible. The biggest one was the FIBA vote in 1989 that changed the eligibility rules and allowed professionals to compete at the Olympics. It just set in motion all these other projects, so Russ came to me and asked if I would help and I said, “of course.” I was there for every step up of the transition up until the “Dream Team” stepped onto the court in Barcelona in 1992, including Coach K’s appointment as assistant coach.
I was working with Russ as the day-to-day liaison to USA Basketball (which changed its name from Amateur Basketball Association of the USA because now professionals were playing). That began to get me out of the legal department. After a year and a half, in 1990, David Stern asked me to join the commissioner’s office formally as an assistant. We decided I would assume the title of special assistant to the commissioner, but that I would still work for Gary in the legal department, work for Russ on USA basketball and other projects, and work with David on his initiatives.
At that time it was possible to do all those projects, because it was a smaller place. The NBA was about 100 people, all in New York. In other words, it was a smaller, more nimble, and more fluid organization.
I don’t think I could do that now. Even then it became really hard; I was just being pulled in too many directions. I really became more of a business person at that point.
How did you transition from the NBA to the WNBA?
In 1995, when I came back from maternity leave with my second daughter, I became much more focused on women’s basketball. We had the Atlanta Olympics looming ahead of us in 1996. We were putting a program together to support the U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team because we had built relationships with USA Basketball on the men’s side. That is when David Stern started to put two and two together and see the connection between our supporting the Olympics in 1996 and parleying that into the launch of the WNBA in 1997. And that’s when I left the men’s side and started working full- time for women. It was all a progression and none of it was planned.
For the WNBA, the timing could not have been better for the league to launch. We had been monitoring the state of women’s basketball in the U.S. for a few years and had been quietly collecting the data for a while. Thanks to Title IX, we knew that it was a widely played sport by women. In addition, basketball is such a beloved sport, the facilities were already there, and the high school and college games were really healthy – it all made sense. The women’s college basketball teams were at a zenith with UConn, Tennessee, ESPN, and the Women’s Final Four. We didn’t do anything; we were just bystanders. UConn burst onto the scene in the early 1990’s, and then we had the Atlanta Olympics in our backyard. Our women’s team had already had a year-long tour leading up to the Games where they were traveling, winning all these games, and collecting sponsors, so by the time they got to the Olympics it was the icing on the cake.
It was natural for the WNBA to launch. The first few years were incredible; we had crowds we never dreamed of, great PR, and overall great success. At the time, the economy was very strong and the NBA business was strong, so the owners were very easily persuaded that it was in their best interest to invest in this league. It was David’s job to get them on board, and he did.
After several years, things began to slow down, and the initial euphoria subsided. Now it is in that inevitable spot where it’s trying to build itself – to build its fan base, fan by fan – trying to keep going and keep growing. Doing that is incredibly hard work and the more challenging parts have set in – keeping the crowds and the ratings at the levels where they need to be.
Over the past few years we have really seen basketball become a global game, not only an American game. How do you make that connection globally?
I represented the U.S. on FIBA’s central board, which is a global board, split into five zones, with representation from all around the world. I’ve been on the board since 2006. We meet several times a year, and as a result, I’ve gotten very acquainted with global sports, the challenges and opportunities it faces, as well as the challenges of women’s sports.
Outside of the U.S., it is especially challenging for women and girls to get involved in sports and to participate, not only as players and athletes, but also as executives. We are very advanced in the U.S., compared to many other countries, in large part because of Title IX, which has opened up so many doors. Change is coming. Progress is coming. The Olympics in London were notable. The U.S. team has more women than men. Women from all over the world were playing, particularly from the Muslim countries, where up until now, women historically have not been allowed to play.
I believe more can be done to leverage sports as a vehicle for social change, and as a tool to benefit women. Everything we’ve seen about how sports, and participation, leads to certain life skills one can use later, and so on, can be deployed in other places if cultural barriers are lifted and softened. Whether it is in Africa or many parts of the Muslim world, sports can be the grease that allows people to move out of their social confines. To really see a push there would be great.
I think in basketball, much good has happened; however, more can certainly be done. Within FIBA, I try to be an advocate for progress in women’s basketball both from a development standpoint and a marketing and branding standpoint. That has been something I’ve cared about.
Advancement of women is not only a social agenda; it is a strong business case. What changes have you witnessed in the gender make-up of the sport industry?
Across the sport industry, we now see more women in management and decision-making positions than ever. When I started at the NBA 25 years ago, you saw very few women operating at a high level. The good news is we see more women making decisions; however, the sobering news is that there are still many more men than women functioning in those roles.
This remains a hot topic in women’s sports circles. How do we get this movement accelerated?
Certainly organizations like the WNBA, which are out there and thriving, are important, because it gives women the chance to assume leadership positions. In the WNBA, I had the opportunity to do this, and I hired many women to management positions. I think similar things have happened in other sports leagues – the U.S. Olympic Committee, some of the soccer leagues, and so on down the line. I like to think the WNBA has helped to make a contribution there, but it’s certainly not the only organization that has afforded women these opportunities; it’s just been a very visible one.
I would like to see more women assume leadership roles, not only on the business side, but also on the sports side. I hope we will see more women becoming assistant coaches and coaches for men’s teams. Why is it that men can coach the women’s teams, but we rarely see a woman coaching a men’s team, or working as an assistant coach? There are certainly women who would be qualified.
Given how few women were in the league when you began, were there certain challenges you faced because of that?
Yes. I’ve had the privilege to work with some very, very smart people, when I was at my law firm, and at the NBA and WNBA. I learned from them, but at times, they intimidated me because they were not only bright, but very demanding as well. I can’t pinpoint a moment, but I can assure you there were times when I had to go into a meeting and explain things and it was nerve wracking. And I would compensate by being neurotically prepared.
I would never take the chance of going into a meeting with a senior executive team at the NBA without doing whatever I needed to do to be prepared. I always believed that I might not be the smartest person in the room, but I would always be prepared.
In addition, the hardest days were always when you have so much to do and you need to figure out a way to get it all done within 24 hours and still find time to sleep. Those are challenges for all working women, and certainly I’m in that boat.
Tell us about a time you faced a particular challenge and how you overcame the challenge?
In terms of dealing with challenges, the hardest moments for me at the WNBA were the times we had to fold teams. Across my eight years there, unfortunately there were several teams that would start and then stop because owners wanted to focus their time on their men’s team, or the economy was bad, or they weren’t getting the desired financial results on the women’s side. So we had cases where WNBA teams were terminated. This meant that team executives weren’t needed anymore and that players had to be disbanded or located to another city. Convincing myself that the sun was going to come up tomorrow when we had these sorts of setbacks was a challenge for sure.
We launched the WNBA in 1997 and within two years, the players made the choice to unionize, which is their right. After two seasons, the women unionized – it was their way of saying they wanted higher pay, etc., and we were thrust into collective bargaining earlier than any other league.
Collective bargaining in sports is really difficult. Look at what football went through in 2011, and what the NHL experienced in 2012. It’s a tough beast. And I was the one who was left telling the players that we really didn’t have the kind of money that they thought we did. Although we were affiliated with the NBA, we didn’t have that type of revenue, and we were paying them all we could pay. To navigate through an experience like that is so challenging. You want them to trust you, but the nature of negotiation is that there is a lot of doubt as they are trying to get more money and benefits out of you. Navigating through the dynamics of collective bargaining was very tough.
You mention trust as a cornerstone of leadership. What are some of the qualities women leaders need to make it in the sport industry?
The women who do best in the business are very good at what they do. They are confident. They need to know about sports, but also about their subject matter (e.g. Law, Sales, Finance). They need to be the best at what they do and that’s how they have come to be respected. That is how you advance. You know what you are doing and you have confidence in it.
Second, the women who succeed in sports make sacrifices. It’s a very exciting profession to be a part of, but a very demanding one. It involves a lot of travel and long hours. I worked longer hours at the NBA than I did on Wall Street. It was night after night after night. And then you add the travel. But that’s what you need to do to advance, for men and women alike. And you need to keep up with the opportunities that arise, because they may not be there in the future.
Finally, I would say you learn to roll with things. It’s sort of a guy’s business, and women have to get used to sometimes being the only woman in the room. Most of the guys in the business are gentlemen, so it’s fine; but sometimes they are not, so you need to learn to pick your fights, and when you do, to have a sense of humor about it.
In order to manage work-life integration in the sport industry, it sounds like you need stamina. You are part of a power couple (your husband was also a successful lawyer). How do you manage?
My wisdom is very sobering – it is really hard to do it. You can’t go in with any illusions about how to balance work and family. It can be made easier if you have a partner who participates in the child rearing, or if your husband/partner works, you have to have good care during the day for your child. We, for a long time, had a full-time babysitter who came in the morning and left at night. And my mother and mother-in-law were living nearby so they could come fill in on the weekends, especially when I was traveling. And then you hope you have some sensitivity in the work place. For example, if you have to leave early or come in late once in a while, or need to pass on a trip every so often, you have the ability to do so.
It is not any one thing. Speaking from a personal level, it’s different for every woman. Every woman is different in terms of what they can tolerate – the pressure, the stress, etc. I was constantly making lists, and making hard decisions about what I could do.
I think technology has helped a lot. Now, if you are out of the office, you can email or video-chat into meetings, or be present without physically being there. Technology has provided so much flexibility in comparison to the workplace 20 years ago. And I think evolving attitudes will make it increasingly easier, too.
There are more and more understanding bosses who have been through it themselves, so they can understand their employees.
But you have to go into it expecting the worst. Sport is a hard business, and a demanding one. It may be that after a while, you need to take a break. That is what happened to me.
I pushed and pushed for 12 years straight and then I really needed a break. Over the last eight years, I have put together a potpourri of projects in sports that have enabled me to stay involved and contribute in a meaningful way while largely working from home. With my youngest daughter still at home, it has been a great arrangement for me. And when she goes off to college, maybe I’ll get back in the frying pan.
Full Biography of Valerie Ackerman:
[Since this interview, Val Ackerman became the Commissioner for the BIG EAST]
Val Ackerman was the founding president of the WNBA, a position she held from 1995-2005. She served from
2005-08 as President of USA Basketball, which oversees the U.S. Olympic basketball program for both men and
Ackerman currently serves as a sports consultant, an adjunct professor of Sports Management at Columbia
University, and a columnist for espnw.com. She is also the U.S. delegate for both men’s & women’s basketball in
the international basketball federation (FIBA), the sport’s world governing body.
Prior to her work with the WNBA, Ackerman worked for 8 years as an executive with the NBA. She served as staff
attorney, special assistant to the Commissioner, director of business affairs and vice president of business affairs
prior to her appointment as the first WNBA president in 1996.
Ackerman received her JD from UCLA. After graduating from law school, she spent two years in New York as an
associate for the Simpson Thacher & Bartlett law firm. Ackerman received her BA in Political & Social Thought
from the University of Virginia. While in college, she was 4-yr basketball starter, 3x captain and 2x Academic AllAmerican.
Ackerman sits on the board of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Women’s Basketball Hall
of Fame, and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. She was inducted as a contributor into
the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.
The LifeChat Series in Sport was created in partnership with Beyond Sport. More information at www.beyondsport.org.