She’s a lawyer. She has been the legal counsel to NBA commissioner David Stern. She brought the WNBA from inception to fruition. She was a star basketball player at the University of Virginia. She has served as president of USA Basketball. And now she’s about to take the Big East conference back to its roots.
She’s Val Ackerman, commissioner of the reformatted Big East conference, and she’s up to the challenge. And the challenges are many. “The biggest challenge is getting things up and running in a very short period of time,” says Ackerman. After all, competition wasn’t supposed to begin until the fall of 2014. Fox Sports 1 changed that. When a brand new all-sports network that you just signed on with says it needs programming “now”, you don’t say, “Wait until next year.” Additionally, there are relationships to build: with Fox Sports, and with Madison Square Garden, which will be the site of the conference’s tournament.
When the “Catholic Seven”, the Catholic schools which broke from the existing Big East, struck out on their own, there were numerous decisions to be made that had significant ramifications for the success or failure of this new venture. What would it be called? Where would it be headquartered? How many teams would there be? Could they get a television deal? And probably most important, who would lead it?
The answers came quickly. Fox Sports 1 offered the TV deal, which dictated where the conference headquarters would be located. “We needed to be close to Fox,” Ackerman says, referring to the decision to make New York the conference’s headquarters. “I live in New York, so that was attractive to me.” When the opportunity to hold the tournament in Madison Square Garden, where it had been held for three decades, was presented, another question was answered. What to call this new conference was a key concern. The old Big East, still headquartered in Providence, was willing to part with the Big East name for a hundred million dollars of the money that the NCAA had paid the conference members for participation in its basketball tournament. To the Catholic Seven, it was worth every dime.
They had a name. They had a tournament site. They had a conference. Now they needed someone to lead it. Needless to say, there was no shortage of interest in the job, but the presidents of the member schools were looking for a particular set of qualifications. They wanted someone who had taken a start-up venture to success; someone who was media-savvy; someone who knew and understood basketball, the conference’s marquee sport, and someone who could relate to college athletes. Enter Val Ackerman. She was all of those things, and more. And Dave Gavitt, the creator of the Big East Conference, had been an inspiration to her. “I served on USA Basketball with Dave,” she recalls.
So what does she hope to accomplish as she embarks upon this enormous task? “ I want to take the heritage of the Big East and build on it, combine it with the modern spirit of innovation. I want to bring women’s programs to a national level, have a national champion in basketball, develop new programs, perhaps have teams play in Europe. And I want to prepare our athletes for life after sports.”
As the Big East returns to a basketball-centric conference and hopes to again be the nation’s top basketball league, who better to lead it than this women who spent sixteen years working in the NBA, was a college athlete herself, and who knew and admired Dave Gavitt?