NEW YORK (AP) — Val Ackerman has been through this type of challenge before, helping turn a startup organization into a major success.
The former WNBA president plans to do the same with the reconstituted Big East.
“I am very sure that the new Big East Conference will be a force,” Ackerman said Wednesday during a conference call to officially announce her hiring as the 10-team league’s commissioner.
Ackerman was the founding president of the WNBA, which was created in 1996 and enjoyed a steady rise in popularity since. She will now be tasked with leading a college sports conference that doesn’t yet have an official headquarters.
“The office right now is me and my iPhone,” Ackerman said with a laugh before adding that the Big East will find temporary office space in New York City before establishing a permanent home in Manhattan.
Ackerman, 53, is a member of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and also was the first female president of USA Basketball. She was most recently a consultant for the NCAA, and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
“We believe we have selected the consummate 21st century basketball executive for the consummate 21st century basketball conference,” Georgetown President John DeGioia said.
Terms of Ackerman’s deal with the Big East, which begins official operations July 1, were not immediately announced.
“For someone like me, this is a dream come true,” she said.
The rebooted conference announced in March that it would include the Big East’s “Catholic 7” basketball schools — Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova — as well as Creighton from the Missouri Valley Conference, and Butler and Xavier from the Atlantic 10.
“The decision by the schools that broke away from the old Big East, now the American Athletic Conference, sort of was a statement,” Ackerman said, “that as far as sports go, this is going to be about being a superior basketball organization.”
The Big East had tasked executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates to find its first commissioner. Former Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe also served as a consultant to the league as it prepared for its first season, and Ackerman announced Beebe will continue to help the Big East.
Ackerman also said Joe D’Antonio, the former Big East’s senior associate commissioner for governance and compliance, would be part of her staff.
“I’ve lived through this with the WNBA,” Ackerman said, “so I know these kinds of things can be done.”
Providence College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley said Ackerman had been on the “radar screen” of all 10 Big East presidents since they began the search for a commissioner in March.
“Val has a passion for the game of basketball that would do Dave Gavitt proud,” said Shanley, referring to the original Big East’s first commissioner in 1979. “We were also attracted to Val because she has done a startup before. She brought the WNBA into being, and we conceive ourselves as a little bit of a startup, too.”
Creighton President Rev. Timothy Lannon, in a letter to the school’s trustees, termed Ackerman “an excellent choice.”
“As we enter this exciting new era in collegiate athletics, which represents an important and strategic opportunity for the whole university, Commissioner Ackerman is the type of results-oriented, innovative leader the Big East needs,” Lannon wrote.
When the Big East unveiled its reformation as a 10-member league, it also announced a 12-year deal with Fox Sports that is worth about $500 million. The schools will also compete together in sports other than basketball, adding associate members in some. The conference is also assuming the old Big East’s lease agreement for its men’s postseason tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Ackerman said there are no immediate plans to expand the conference from 10 teams.
“Right now, we love 10,” she said, “and 10 is a great number. ... To be honest, we have so much on our plate right now that expansion isn’t even on the radar screen.”
Her immediate plans include going to each school’s campus to meet with coaches and athletic leaders, as well as building her staff and setting up the schedules for the Big East’s winter sports. She said the fall sports schedules are “in pretty good shape.”
Ackerman was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011, and is the current U.S. representative for the International Basketball Federation. She’s also a board member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
She began her sports management career in 1988 with the NBA, serving as staff attorney, special assistant to Commissioner David Stern and vice president of business affairs before leading the WNBA from 1996 to 2005.
“I congratulate the Big East for making such an inspired choice in Val Ackerman,” Stern said. “I had the pleasure of working alongside Val for many years, including the period in which she transformed the WNBA from a mere concept into a thriving basketball league.”
Ackerman, a New Jersey native, was a four-year starter on Virginia’s basketball team. She played professionally in France for one year before earning a law degree from UCLA.
“From my standpoint, I want to make sure that the Big East is at the table,” Ackerman said, “when important discussions are being had within the NCAA about men’s and women’s basketball.”
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