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First WNBA president Val Ackerman’s HOF-level impact on women’s basketball

Since 1988, Val Ackerman has been actively involved in the business of basketball. Because of her contributions to the game — headlined by her eight-year tenure as the first president of the WNBA — she deserves to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Val Ackerman Portrait
Val Ackerman, 1998.
Photo by Frank Veronsky/NBAE via Getty Images

Along with women’s basketball superstars Lauren Jackson and Yolanda Griffith, current Big East commissioner Val Ackerman was nominated for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for 2021.

The epitome of a basketball lifer, Ackerman is more than deserving of the honor. From 1977 to 1981, she starred at the University of Virginia, where she was:

  • one of the first women to receive an athletic scholarship
  • a four-year starter
  • a three-year captain
  • UVA’s first 1,000-point scorer

She then played professionally in France for one season.

In 1988, former NBA commissioner David Stern hired Ackerman as a staff attorney for the NBA. Since then, she has been involved in basketball administration at the game’s highest levels.

She has served as the vice president of business affairs for the NBA; the first woman president of USA Basketball; the US delegate to the FIBA board; and as a member of FIBA’s Competition Committee, the Executive Committee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the Board of Directors of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame and the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Currently the commissioner of the Big East, Ackerman’s headlining accomplishment remains her service from 1997 to 2005 as the WNBA’s first president.

Val Ackerman made the WNBA the WNBA

It is appropriate for Ackerman to receive a Hall of Fame nomination the same year that the WNBA will be celebrating its 25th anniversary.

It is a testament to her early efforts that the league has survived, if not thrived, for 24-going-on-25 seasons. Ackerman established the WNBA as a legitimate professional sports venture. Because of her work, the WNBA has become, by far, the most successful professional women’s team sports league in US history.

1997 WNBA Draft
First WNBA president Val Ackerman welcomes 1997 No. 1 Draft pick Tina Thompson to the WNBA.
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Ackerman’s greatest success was the selling of the WNBA.

She convinced both corporate America and potential fans that the WNBA was not the spoiled little sister league of the NBA, gifted unearned opportunity by its big brother. The WNBA was, in fact, an exciting basketball attraction.

Although the early emphasis on the traditional femininity of WNBA players now seems a bit outmoded, if not problematic, marketing WNBA stars as daughters, mothers, wives and sisters who just happened to be awesome hoopers resonated with the corporate and suburban audiences that the league prioritized in the late 1990s. Led by Ackerman, the WNBA secured sponsorship deals with the likes of Budweiser, Kellogg’s, Sears and television contracts with NBC, ESPN and Lifetime, all while also exceeding expected viewership and attendance numbers during its first seasons.

As the initial wave of interest faded, Ackerman successfully shepherded the league through more uncertain times, not only navigating declines in attendance and viewership but also the consequences of too-eager expansion, which contributed the folding and/or relocation of franchises.

Yet, the attitude Ackerman expressed early on proved prescient. In June of 1997, she told the New York Times:

We know it will take more than one or two years. This is a long term investment. We are very focused on the quality of the product. From the front office to the coaches to the player, we want to make this first class.

Over the subsequent 24 seasons, Ackerman’s vision has not been perfectly realized. Nonetheless, in large part due to Ackerman’s early, steady leadership, it has been realized — the WNBA now is a permanent part of the American sports landscape.

Detroit Shock v New York Liberty
New York Liberty guard Vickie Johnson and general manager Carol Blazejowski honor Val Ackerman for her service to the WNBA during the 2005 season.
Photo by Ray Amati/NBAE via Getty Images

More evidence of Val Ackerman’s impact on basketball

As noted above, Ackerman’s impact on basketball extends beyond the WNBA. For all of her work within the world of basketball, the honors she has accumulated include:

  • ACC’s 50th Anniversary Women’s Basketball Team (2003)
  • NCAA Silver Anniversary Award (2006)
  • IOC’s Women of Distinction diploma (2008)
  • Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame’s John Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award (2008)
  • Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame (2011)
  • USA Basketball’s Edward S. Steitz Award (2013)

Induction in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2021 should be added to this list.