By Jonah Sharf
Val Ackerman’s interest in sports has always been a family matter—both her grandfather and father served as athletic directors in her home state of New Jersey. During her childhood, her father encouraged Val and her brother to play as many sports as they could, playing catch with both of them as often as possible, setting up a basketball hoop and even a badminton net in their backyard.
Ackerman credits the backing she had from her family, especially her father, for not just getting her into sports, but for having a significant impact in all the groundbreaking work she has done for the entire women’s sports community.
“At a time in the late ‘60s when there weren’t many sports opportunities for girls, before Title IX, my dad took an interest in me and my interest in sports,” Ackerman said. “[It was] the combination of him engaging with us, but also being supportive later in life. He had a big hand in girls sports in my area during those years, and then of course was very supportive as I was going through college and beyond.”
With her father’s encouragement, Ackerman ran track, played field hockey, and basketball in high school, among other sports she had picked up along the way. She went to the University of Virginia, and was one of the first females at the school to receive an athletic scholarship thanks to Title IX—a law passed in 1972 that aims to give female athletes equal opportunities in college sports.
Ackerman was a four-year starter on Virginia’s basketball team, and she played one year professionally in France before going to UCLA to earn her law degree. She was soon hired as an attorney at the NBA, and quickly moved up in the company. During her tenure at the NBA, Ackerman was an appointee to to the Board of Directors of USA Basketball and was instrumental in her help with the Dream Team, which is where she and a few others at the NBA realized there was an opportunity with women’s basketball.
“It quickly became apparent to me and Russ Granik, former deputy commissioner, that there was an opportunity on the women’s side as well, to support the women’s national team,” Ackerman said. “That really began to happen in 1995, when the NBA began a relationship on the women’s side to support the ‘96 women’s Olympic team that played in Atlanta.”
Ackerman and Granik, along with several other high-level NBA officials, such as then-commissioner David Stern and current commissioner Adam Silver, helped to form a partnership between the NBA and the women’s national basketball team. They began working with the team the year before Atlanta, and she believes this partnership helped pave the way for what came next.
The NBA started a relationship with the USA women’s team with the idea that they could capitalize on the wild popularity of women’s basketball at the time due in part to women’s college basketball, as well as the buzz the national team would create at the Olympics. Before the team even played an Olympic game, Ackerman and others were quietly working on plans for a women’s professional league backed entirely by the NBA.
“It was our support of [the women’s national team], our subsidization of that team…that I think really paved the way for the launch of the WNBA,” Ackerman said. “We timed [it] to coincide with the Atlanta Olympics, so we came out of Atlanta with the announcement.”
When the WNBA was officially founded after the 1996 Olympics, Val Ackerman was named the first president, and she served until February of 2005, when she stepped down. She was then named the first female president of USA basketball where she served from 2005-2008.
Since 2013, she has served as the commissioner of the Big East Conference, and she is one of the most influential women in sports history.
Through it all, Ackerman has never forgotten about the impact her father had on her growing up and how he set her on the trailblazing path she has been on since she started college.
“Family really does matter for young kids in terms of encouragement and support, and that was certainly the case for me,” Ackerman said. “[Parents] can have a huge impact on your daughters especially, if you’re supportive and encouraging.”