In 2013, Val Ackerman was tapped to become the commissioner of the Big East Conference. It was not a turnkey operation. The Big East then had been reborn as a basketball-centric conference, after detaching itself from its big time football schools—like Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse—which left for other conferences. What remained were the so-called Catholic 7—Georgetown, Marquette, St. John’s, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul—plus three new members (Creighton, Butler and Xavier). The rechristened Big East had a television contract (a 12-year deal with Fox for a reported $500 million), but little else. No permanent home office. No staff. Just, as Ackerman recalls it, “me and my iPhone.”
But Ackerman, the presidents of these universities surmised, was up for the challenge. Basketball had been a huge part of her life. She had played at Virginia for four years. Sports administration was a big part of her resume. She had worked closely with then-commissioner, David Stern, at the NBA, had been the founding commissioner of the WNBA and was the first female president of USA Basketball and the U.S. representative to FIBA.
The bet on Ackerman seems to have paid off. Last year, in just its second year of (re)existence, the Big East had six teams invited to the NCAA Tournament. And now, on the eve of the Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden, the Big East features two teams ranked in the AP top five (Villanova and Xavier).
I caught up with Ackerman recently to ask her a few questions about her background, about becoming the Big East commissioner and whether or not college athletes should be paid.
Your grandfather was the head football, baseball and basketball coach—and de facto athletic director—of what’s now known as the College of New Jersey. Your father was the athletic director at your high school. The administrative side of sports seems to be in your blood.
My interest in sports comes honestly. I thought I would be an athletic director of some sort, but my career path has been a bit different. But I credit them for helping inspire my interest in this as a career.
In college you played basketball at Virginia for four distinguished years, right during the infancy of Title IX.
I’m thankful for Title IX every day. I went to Virginia in the fall of 1977. Title IX had been in the books for five years at that point. It took years for the principles to be brought into practice. I started out on a partial scholarship. There was only one scholarship for the whole team. I got half of it and a teammate got the other half. The next year, I got a full ride, and by the time I graduated, most of the team was getting either a full or partial scholarship. I got a great education and came out of school debt free. But I was very much on the front lines at the time.
You then went to France to play professional basketball for a year? Did you have dreams of making basketball a career, or was this more of a cultural caper?
I didn’t get to do a semester abroad. I had a desire to travel. So that became my gap year. I was in a small town two hours south of Paris on a second division team. They paid housing and airfare and I got a stipend and I got to see some of the world. Looking back, it would have been nice to stay longer than I did.
Then what did you do?
I went to law school at UCLA. I wanted to work in sports right out of school, but I couldn’t find a job. So I worked at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. I did a year of corporate work and a year in the banking area. I met my husband there. He stayed and I left and picked up my search to get back into sports. My first job was a staff attorney at the NBA, under Gary Bettman, who is now the NHL commissioner.
At the NBA, you worked closely with then-commissioner, David Stern. Then you went on to become the founding commissioner of the WNBA, then the president to USA basketball and U.S. representative to FIBA. And now, of course, you are the commissioner of the Big East. Despite your incredible resume, did you get any brushback when you became the Big East commissioner because of your gender? (Interviewer’s note: It will be great one day to not feel compelled to ask questions like these. Thankfully, that day is coming.)
I didn’t feel any when I was hired. There was nothing visible to me. I think the presidents in this conference saw my background, all the work I’d done in basketball and with universities. And I’d been on the ground floor with the WNBA, so I had some familiarity with startups, even though what the Big East was going through was more of a rebrand. And so I never thought, coming into work every day, ‘hey, I’m a woman, so I’ll do it this way or that way.’ I wanted to do what it would take to make it successful. Since I started my career, many more women have entered sports. It’s night and day. Of the 32 Division 1 conferences, 9 are now led by female commissioners. There is still some work to do globally, though.
Football is the big revenue-generator in college sports. Do you think there will ever be a time when the Big East adds a football conference?
I think that ship has sailed. I don’t see this group resuscitating football as a conference sport. We’d more likely add basketball-centric schools to our ranks.What’s the single biggest issue in college sports right now?
It’s the uncertainty of the landscape, given the litigations of the last couple of years, which are challenging the tradition of the amateurism model. It’s fueled by the changing economics of collegiate sports. Big money is coming in, principally from football and the media contracts associated with football. It’s creating large disparities between top schools and lower resource schools. That’s being played out with the so-called “autonomy” conferences dictating their own rules. They can spend more on coaches and facilities and benefits which, at the end of the day, could prove to be a great recruiting advantage. The litigations will have profound implications. No one has a crystal ball on the outcomes, so the uncertainty is a top issue.
Another issue is the nature of the student-athlete experience, what’s right for them. They have time demands. They spend a great deal of time on athletics, and have to shoehorn in academics and other activities while preparing for life after sports. There’s a renewed focus on finding the right balance.
On that note, do you think student-athletes should be paid?
In a manner of speaking, they already are if they’re getting a full scholarship. It’s a quid pro quo.
But is it one that’s commensurate to the amount of revenue they help bring to the university? As an example, take Derrick Henry, the running back at Alabama. He won the Heisman Trophy and helped Alabama win the national title. And Alabama just reported $153 million in athletic revenues for 2013-2104 ($95 million of which came from football). Henry stands to make a boatload of money in the NFL, but he certainly didn’t do so in college. Should he have gotten a piece of the pie that he helped to make?
It’s a fair question. What is the value of the name on the back of the jersey versus the name on the front? In our conference, which is about basketball and not football, of course, our schools have told us that the value of a men’s basketball scholarship, when you look at tuition, room and board, academic support, apparel and medical support, is probably in the neighborhood of $125,000 to $150,000 per student-athlete. It may not be a cash payment, but it is tax-free. It’s not insignificant. But I do think there are some fair questions being asked. To its credit, in the last couple of years, the NCAA has been focusing on what more can be done. Would I support an outright free agency in college athletics, as in theJenkins litigation? I don’t think that’s the route. But I do think some of the inroads, the enhanced benefits and the cost of attendance, are good steps.