First WNBA President's legacy enters its second decade

Val Ackerman Celebrates Ten Years of the WNBA

With Matt Wurst,

In a season brimming with anniversary celebrations, Monday, August 7 will mark the 10-year anniversary of another major milestone in WNBA history. Val Ackerman was named the first president of the WNBA on that day and built the league up as the most successful women's professional sports league in the world over her eight years in charge. She finally handed over the reins to Donna Orender in February of 2005 and was elected President of USA Basketball for the 2005-2008 term. We talked with Ackerman during the recent WNBA 10th Anniversary Celebration to get her unique perspective on the history of the league.

Q. As someone who presided over the progress of the WNBA from its inception, how has the league grown or changed?
"Well I think the biggest change from this year to the early years is that there is a routine and an established cycle that didn't exist early on. I don't want to say the league runs itself now, because it clearly takes the efforts of many, but keep in mind that when we started the league, we had to do everything for the first time. We had to hire all the personnel, we were coming up with uniforms, we had to decide on the ball size and color and we had to find players.

Q. What were some of the early challenges of those first few months back in 1996?
"The first year of the WNBA, teams could not promote their players. They did not know who they were going to have on their teams, they had no game footage or photos, so we had to establish the marketing initiatives for the first time. We had no league history to draw on, which made things quite challenging. We partially adopted elements from women's college basketball and the NBA as our basis for talking points on why the league was going to be so special. So the fact now that there is a history, ten years of great moments, and it has established routines is really something to be proud of. You know just when the season is coming, how the playoffs work and so on. It's a major departure from the early years when we were doing things for the first time."

Q. Were you ever afraid that the league might grow too fast or get a little too big for itself?
"On that subject, we worked very hard to be sensible in the early years about cost management, player salaries probably being the chief concern. In comparison, at the time the league started, there was another league, the ABL, which was just getting started and had quite a bit of press. The media played up the two leagues and their so-called rivalry. That league was attractive to players because it paid much more handsomely than the WNBA paid at the time. It was a real test of discipline for us. We thought, ' you know what, that's great for the players, but for the league's long-term success, it seemed iffy.' It seems like they were spending more than they could afford. So we wanted to be very disciplined early on about player salaries. We ended up losing players in the early going because they went with the ABL instead, but that was an important thing for us to kind of manage and be sensible about."

Q. How did expenses affect early plans for expansion?
"In all honesty, the fact that we were able to borrow help from the NBA at the league and team levels was very helpful. We were very aggressive in expansion, we added a lot of teams early on because the interest was there. When some of the teams that had been on the sidelines in the first years saw what was happening with the early crowds and how exciting the games were and how easy the players were to work with, many wanted to get involved. We were aggressive about adding teams and grew quickly from that point, but I think it was a good gamble because the interest was created in additional markets and the value added to sponsors and networks was very beneficial. Now the league has settled down in the most receptive markets with the most committed management teams. the league is in a great place right now."

Q. What kind of impact did that 1995-96 USA Olympic team have as far as direct contributions to the WNBA and the growth of this league?
"It was probably the primary piece of the foundation that led to the WNBA. There also were other factors, such as how far women's college basketball had come, how many girls were playing the sport, how widespread internationally the sport of women's basketball was. But that particular team at that particular time, with the top players, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley, Sheryl Swoopes and Rebecca Lobo, all part of that, was coming together. This was way before women's soccer did it. Long before people were even thinking about it in women's soccer, we were doing it in basketball. Winning the gold medal was amazing. That Gold Medal Game in Atlanta got a 15.5 rating on NBC and people had noted that the women's game had arrived. With that as the backdrop, the momentum created was the strongest push we could have had going into the first season of the WNBA. The top players of that National Team had signed up with the WNBA and we were able to take advantage of the goodwill associated with their name."

Q. So what do you think you would be doing now if there was never a WNBA?
"Oh gosh, I don't know. When the WNBA came along, I was hard at work, working with Russ Granik and David Stern in the NBA office. That would have led me somewhere else within the business, but I do feel lucky that I was in the right place at the right time. I initially worked in the league office at a time when it was much smaller, working very closely with Russ and David. They knew I had played and still had contacts with the women's college basketball community. I had been working with Russ on the early men's Dream Team, so I began to understand the value potentially of the National Team as a way to build the foundation of the next big thing in women's basketball. That became the WNBA. So for me, it was a dream sort of situation. Frankly, the only thing that could have made me walk away from it were my two daughters and obviously that's what ended up happening.

Q. Yet you are still such an influential member of the basketball community. Do you miss it at all?
"It has been terrific to stay involved with the game through USA Basketball. I am on other boards that have to deal with sports including college sports as well. I think basketball sort of stays in your system. It's like a permanent condition, when you work in sports, in particular, it's kind of hard to imagine even being in any other field. We'll see what happens, but I can't imagine there not being any WNBA. I'm not quite sure where I would be."

Q. Who would you vote for if you could choose your own All-Decade Team?
"No list of mine could exclude Cynthia Cooper, Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes. I would put Teresa Weatherspoon on the team for everything that she represented spiritually for the league and for the Liberty, the intensity of her connection with the fans was sort of symbolic. Another player who didn't play very long but was critical to us, particularly early on, was Michelle Timms. She, like Spoon, was symbolic of this sort of player who wore her heart on her sleeve. They were so endearing that way, and so connected with the fans that they sort of become symbols of everything the league aspired to be in the mindsets of the fans. My other five would include Tina Thompson, Yolanda Griffith, Lauren Jackson, Andrea Stinson, and Chamique Holdsclaw. I could be talked into Sue Bird instead of Michelle Timms, but I do think Michelle was very important historically.

*All Photos courtesy NBAE/Getty Images