Val Ackerman's cool job: Big East commissioner
Consider this Val Ackerman's return to espnW.com. After stepping down from her position as WNBA president in 2005, Ackerman took on what she calls a "hodgepodge of activities": consulting, teaching, serving on boards and, yes, writing for espnW. This is a one-time thing, though. Ackerman's full-time gig as Big East commissioner keeps her plenty busy.
Hired in the summer of 2013, her role marks the latest chapter in a lifetime in sports. Ackerman was a star athlete growing up in New Jersey on the heels of Title IX. She played basketball at the University of Virginia, splitting the team's only full scholarship with another player her first year.
While in law school, she decided she wanted to work in sports. After two years at a Wall Street law firm, she was hired by the NBA in 1988. She worked closely with USA Basketball and became the first president of the WNBA when the league launched in 1996.
The aforementioned "hodgepodge" included a stint as USA Basketball president before she was tabbed as the fifth Big East commissioner. "None of this was foreseen," she says. "I just wanted to work in sports."
In her own words, Ackerman, 58, describes the early days of the Big East's reboot -- once the league's football-playing schools left to form their own conference -- and the key issues she faces today.
Getting the job
A search firm contacted me in April 2013. I was not expecting that, nor did I expect I would be able to do the job. I had a few interviews with all 10 of the Big East school presidents. This was a league that was relaunching as a basketball-centric conference, and my sense is that they respected my intense basketball background. It was also of interest to the presidents that I'd been so vitally involved in the launch of the WNBA.
I'd been a student-athlete, so the idea of returning to college sports excited me. It was a conference without football, which interested me. The fact that it was a basketball-focused league, I thought I could help. I had the thrill of leading the launch of the WNBA, and in the back of my mind, I thought there were some similarities. Finally, I knew Dave Gavitt, the first Big East commissioner. It felt like an omen to carry on his legacy. I felt a powerful emotional connection to the place because of my relationship with Dave, whom I regarded as a mentor from our time together at USA Basketball. It was the right move at the right time.
Early on, this was the most challenging job I ever had. We were in many respects a true start-up. I was reading "Inc." because the feel here was more entrepreneurial than corporate. There was a lot to do in a short period of time. We didn't have an office. We were using a law firm as our home base. There was no infrastructure -- no email, websites, employee benefit plans, insurance policies, payroll systems. We had to write a schedule for games, plan our championships and sell sponsorships. The ink was barely dry on our contract with Fox Sports before we had to implement it.
The grand experiment for the conference was to remain successful in basketball without football, and we're proving naysayers wrong.Val Ackerman
Before I was hired, the presidents brought in Dan Beebe, former Big 12 commissioner, as a consultant. He and Joe D'Antonio, now the Colonial Athletic Association commissioner, were very helpful. We were drinking out of a fire hose the first few months. We brought in some people from the old Big East and relied heavily on our schools, our athletic directors and our senior women's administrators.
I would not want to relive the first couple of years. The to-do lists got longer, not shorter. I didn't take a vacation the first year because there was no time. But we made it. "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." That's my new favorite expression. My staff is very proud of what we've been able to do in four years to keep the Big East brand at a high level.
I live in Manhattan, so I take the subway to our Midtown office. The days I'm in the office, I'm either at my desk -- often on the phone -- or in meetings. The hardest part of the job is managing my inbox. I get hundreds of emails a day. I frequently hear from students and student-athletes asking for career advice or requesting to interview me. I always accommodate them. I think it's critically important to give back to students.
I report to the Big East board of directors, which is made up of the presidents of our 10 schools. I work closely with the athletic directors as well. I oversee a staff of 20 people. Most notably, we run the conference championships for our men's and women's sports, 22 in total. We manage the relationship with Fox Sports, which televises hundreds of Big East sporting events every year, and our sponsors. I serve our presidents, our athletic directors, our student-athletes, our partners and our fans. You find yourself at the intersection of many important groups when you're in this role.
While we have a rhythm and some predictability based on the time of year, it's the kind of job where things come up that weren't foreseen, and you have to adapt. Every day is different. I do travel a lot, especially September through June. I try to get to every Big East campus for a basketball game during the winter. I'm on the men's basketball oversight committee, and we have three or four meetings a year, mostly in Indianapolis. I'm also on the board for U.S. Soccer, the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame and [I] am a lifetime trustee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Our men's basketball tournaments have been a source of great pride here. People didn't know what to expect in 2014 when we had our first tournament post-reconfiguration. We had fewer teams -- 10 instead of 16 -- and some of the big-name schools were gone. People expected a lesser event, but it was spectacular, as has been every one since. I credit our chief marketing officer, Ann Crandall. Villanova winning the national championship in 2016 was an incredible experience for them and all of us at the conference. To be courtside for the national final when they won, the way they won, is a moment I'll never forget.
We had two events this summer I was proud to be a part of. Pope Francis offered the Vatican as a platform to talk about the value of sports in society, and we had a follow-up conference at Villanova in June that was very well received. We also held a conference at Georgetown on student-athlete mental health. We had 100 representatives from all of our schools with experts from various mental health organizations. That was an important moment for the conference.
No pigskin, no problem
I'm amazed at the enormity of football: the revenue it generates, the focus and attention it gets, how consuming it is on campuses, how hard my fellow commissioners at football leagues work. College football is like a cultural institution in certain parts of the country. Growing up in the Northeast, pro football is a real force, but college football seems less so. So I feel like I'm in the right part of the country to be a basketball person, and I'm fine with that.
The grand experiment for the conference was to remain successful in basketball without football, and we're proving naysayers wrong. We don't have football revenue, and that's no small thing, but we can focus on basketball. Schools can say that to their recruits: "You will be the big men and women on campus because we are basketball-focused." (Note: League members Georgetown, Villanova and Butler play football, but in different conferences in the FCS.)
Football is not my comfort zone. Basketball is in my blood. I played it. I've spent almost my entire career in the sport at all levels. This is a dream job to be at the Big East, such a big basketball brand. I feel very much at home.
A hot topic right now is student-athlete welfare -- that they're getting their scholarships, a quality academic experience, the proper level of medical care, the right amount of time off. I don't support and I'm not aware of any commissioner who supports the idea of student-athletes receiving salaries and being treated like salaried employees. I think the scholarship is an appropriate quid pro quo for being admitted to a college you might not have been admitted to were it not for your athletic prowess, having the experience of a student-athlete, getting an education and graduating debt-free. The law has been with the NCAA on this one. As far as endorsements or outside sources of income, it's a complex issue. If student-athletes are getting additional compensation for the use of their likenesses, it starts to get into some gray areas that have to get more closely examined. It's a discussion item within the NCAA.
We're also monitoring events and issues of the day and trying to figure out how the Big East can be in step with the times. We signed up to be a part of the Obama White House's "It's On Us" campaign, which is a promotional campaign to prevent sexual assault. The Big East hosted a diversity roundtable in April, trying to surface solutions as they relate to hiring practices, pipeline development and retention for women and people of color in college athletic departments. Student-athlete activism is another issue. What do anthem gestures and protests and boycotts mean in the college sports space? I try to keep our presidents apprised of what's happening in the sports world generally so they can have the right communication on their campuses with their students.
As for the recent FBI allegations involving college basketball, one area that clearly needs some reform is summer basketball. You have a whole list of entities here that are involved, ranging from the operators of travel teams to the coaches of those teams to shoe companies to USA Basketball, which runs its busy season in the summer months. College coaches are very interested in those summer leagues because they're opportunities to scout players. This has been a very difficult area to manage. When I was the president of USA Basketball, I did considerable legwork on this and put some thought into whether there needs to be a national governing body for pre-collegiate, non-scholastic basketball. Right now there is not. What we've ended up with is a kind of Wild West. The events of late will put a newfound focus on whether it can be managed in a better way so the kids' best interests are being dealt with because I'm not sure that's the case right now.