Ackerman Looks at League’s Future

By John Clayton
Indianapolis, March 3, 2004

The recent past of the WNBA has included one relocation – Utah to San Antonio – and one contraction (Cleveland), but league President Val Ackerman looks at the future and sees a league embarking on the same type of growth that brought the then-expansion Indiana Fever into the fold five years ago.

The WNBA began its life in NBA cities and arenas, but Ackerman sees the eight-year-old league continuing to venture beyond the culture of the NBA and into cities with rich basketball traditions not necessarily born of the NBA. Prior to last season, the Miami Sol relocated to Connecticut, near Storrs where the University of Connecticut has built a women’s basketball dynasty, and became the Connecticut Suns.

Could the Knoxville (Tenn.) Smoke be next? Or how about the Columbus (Ohio) Tams? Northern California – the home of Cal-Berkley and Stanford - also has allure when the WNBA next tackles expansion.

“I feel very confident about the teams we have now,” Ackerman said. “I think that we have potential in every market. The new frontier will be some of these non-NBA markets, finding the right situation and the right management teams, committed ownership who are capitalized enough to invest because it requires investment in the early years.

“And there may be some other NBA markets who aren’t in the game now that have stayed out of it for a variety of reasons that we think in the near term are ready to jump in. Now they’re ready for their WNBA team. . . . I foresee a mix, probably in the foreseeable future it will be a predominantly NBA-owned and operated locally and not as many of these independently owned teams. But I foresee in the best of all worlds for us, a mix and I think that’s going to happen.”

Until just a few months ago, owners of NBA teams also had sole ownership of their WNBA counterparts. But that changed when a pair of Arizona entrepreneurs bought approximately 25 percent of the Phoenix Mercury. The fact that the two investors were both women gave Ackerman particular joy, given the few women who have been involved in the ownership of professional sports teams in the past.

“The teams are now transferable apart from their NBA teams,” she said. “Now, if two local business women from Indiana came forward and wanted to take a piece of the team, they could do that. They could negotiate with (the Simons) and they could do that.”

Under the league’s new economic system, which has welcomed free agency among players and transferred operations of each team from the league to the teams themselves, teams such as Cleveland have either ceased operations or have relocated (Miami).

“They really had to have a soul search about the long-term prospects in their market and it was a good process, quite honestly,” Ackerman said. “It really separated the teams with potential and with ownership we think is committed from the those who were less so.”

Ackerman said she also sees the league’s future in the hands of a new breed of athlete – one that, starting with this year’s WNBA Draft, may have focused on a WNBA career since her freshman year in high school. And in those of owners who realize that the first major sports league for women cannot be built in a year or even a decade.

“They understand it’s a long process that may take decades just like it did in the NBA,” she said. “But at the same time, we know that this has to work for our teams and the economics have add up. It’s not like college sports where athletic teams are supported by Title IX whether they make money or not. . . . There’s no Title IX system. Fans are either going to support it or not. They’re going to support it in ways that matter economically or not.”

That understanding was echoed by Pacers and Fever Chief Executive Officer Donnie Walsh, who recalls an NBA that was not on the firm footing it now stand on.

“The WNBA is in its infancy right now,” Walsh said. “Like the NBA, which is 60 years old, it will get better and it will grow.”