By Greg Johnson
Val Ackerman, the founding president of the WNBA and the first woman to serve as president of USA Basketball, has been hired as a consultant to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the current state of intercollegiate women’s basketball. Ackerman is expected to deliver a strategic “white paper” by this spring with her conclusions and recommendations about how best to position and manage the sport.
NCAA Vice President of Women’s Basketball Anucha Browne said Ackerman’s areas of focus will include:
Browne said Ackerman will focus primarily on Division I, but that some recommendations could also be relevant for Divisions II and III. Ackerman also may be asked to provide input on other related topics, such as recruiting.
Ackerman was retained after Brown consulted Mark Lewis, NCAA executive vice president for championships and alliances, about the need for a broad, strategic outlook for women’s basketball, which is entering its 32nd year since the NCAA began sponsoring women’s basketball championships in 1981-82.
“Val has a great historical perspective and outlook,” Browne said, noting that Ackerman’s experience ranges from being one of the first female scholarship student-athletes at Virginia to being the U.S. representative to the Central Board of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), which governs men’s and women’s basketball around the world. “Working with her allows us to take advantage of her remarkable background and experience as we continue to try and grow the great game of women’s basketball at the grass-roots level.”
Ackerman will seek input from national office staff, conference office personnel, campus athletics administrators, current and former college coaches, and other affiliates such as representatives from sports television networks.
“The NCAA wants someone to look at this with fresh eyes,” said Ackerman, who graduated from Virginia with a degree in political and social thought in 1981 and earned a law degree from UCLA in 1985. “As a former student-athlete in the early years of Title IX, it has been exciting for me to see how far the sport has come at the intercollegiate, high school and the professional levels.”
Nora Lynn Finch, senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball at the Atlantic Coast Conference, is among those who agree that Ackerman is well positioned for the assignment.
“To have Val thoroughly evaluate the state of intercollegiate women’s basketball is to have one of the world’s foremost authorities on the game to give us a complete exam – fiscal, social and practical,” Finch said. “Val ‘gets it’ when it comes to the who, what, how and why of successful basketball philosophies, policies and practices. We will be well served to listen to her carefully and to find ways to invest and implement her wisdom and experience into our sport.”
Ackerman, who is an adjunct professor in the graduate sports management program at Columbia, said basketball is an important component of the women’s sports landscape around the world.
“It represents an extraordinary vehicle at the collegiate level to educate young women as well as entertain fans,” she said. “I look forward to helping the NCAA maximize both of those outcomes.”
One of Ackerman’s first conversations will be with Beth Bass, CEO of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
“Val’s unparalleled background, experience and reputation in the women’s basketball community, both nationally and internationally, make her the absolute best person to assess and advise the NCAA on the sport,” Bass said. “There is no doubt that the NCAA is serious about moving our game forward.”
Browne said any concept that could improve the intercollegiate women’s game will be considered, as long as decisions are grounded in research.
“We are going to engage some of the greatest minds in the game about potential changes or improvements to the framework of the game and championship. Anything that helps the game and has a positive impact on our student-athletes is the key. This is an opportunity to vet, to get underneath and examine all the possibilities and determine what is executable.”
Any recommendations will also include input from NCAA broadcast partners.
“Val is established and well respected at all levels,” said Carol Stiff, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions. “I have great confidence that her work on this initiative will be beneficial for the future growth of the sport.”
Ackerman said gaining the coaches’ perspective will be a priority. Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer said she welcomes the opportunity.
“Val Ackerman’s inclusion on this project for women’s basketball and the NCAA makes her, to put it in a coach’s terms, a great recruit for our basketball team,” VanDerveer said. “She’s extremely intelligent and has a great background in the game. Val has been a part of the women’s basketball world for a long time, and she will bring a lot of insight and ideas to this project. She is someone I will look forward to working with again.”
“We have to continue to work closely with the coaching community so everyone is on the same page on all fronts,” Ackerman said. “That is how the sport is going to become stronger in the years to come.”
Rick Nixon, NCAA associate director of championships and alliances, contributed to this article.