New Big East commissioner faces stiff tests

As commissioner, Val Ackerman faces some early challenges.
As commissioner, Val Ackerman faces some early challenges. (BILL KOSTROUN / AP)
Posted: June 28, 2013

The most interesting line on new Big East commissioner Val Ackerman's resume may not be that she was first president of the WNBA or former president of USA Basketball.

Ackerman also has served on the Knight Commission, kind of an in-house (but mostly ineffectual) critic of college sports.

For years, the Knight Commission has argued that college presidents haven't taken sufficient charge of the sport, allowing big-money interests to rule the day.

It was very much the presidents of the new Big East who took charge of the commissioner search. The message has been clear and intended: The presidents are in charge of this outfit. Not the athletic directors. Not the highest-profile coaches.

Obviously, these presidents also signed a big-money television deal with Fox Sports before they hired a commissioner. This new Big East incarnation is not against exposure or making money.

Announced on Wednesday as the new boss, Ackerman has an immediate chance to show her mettle. Fox Sports isn't in the student-athlete business. The guess here is that the network would have zero problem showing games any night of the week, travel schedules and class schedules be damned.

Ackerman said all the right things on a conference call about her commitment to student-athletes. She was one herself as a basketball player at Virginia. She also has a law degree from UCLA, was an important David Stern disciple at the NBA and has taught at Columbia.

Her first test - stand up to Fox as it puts together its first college hoops schedule.

Her next test - stand up to the presidents themselves. She knows more about sports than most or maybe all of them do. If she wants the Big East to be a truly elite basketball league, she has to listen to all her constituencies, not just the small group that hired her.

The best sentence I heard Wednesday about Ackerman came from somebody remembering Ackerman's days in charge of the WNBA.

"She'd sit down and listen to you," the person said.

A college sports commissioner doesn't have to be an charismatic out-front spokesperson. You need a smart, strategic thinker, somebody who knows what they know and, just as important, what they don't know.

Hopefully, Ackerman already knows what she doesn't know about the inner workings of a conference and hires some smart folks from the old Big East, which is in the midst of downsizing as it morphs into the American Athletic Conference.

Ackerman just finished a study for the NCAA about how to improve women's basketball. The Big East offers a great opportunity to put ideas in place since this league won't have established powers Connecticut, Notre Dame and Rutgers. Plenty of good women's hoops schools, including Villanova, are part of the league. Ackerman has a chance to help a few rise and join the powers.

Ackerman, who will base the conference office in New York, made a couple of important points on the conference call. She knows what her league represents - "this will be a basketball-centric organization," she said.

That is unique in the sense that the Big East is trying to stay at the same big-boy table with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and other leagues that derive far more income from football than basketball. Right now, the league is at 10 schools, and Ackerman said that is a good number. (The guess here, it won't be the final number.)

"I want to make sure the Big East is at the table when important decisions are being made for men's and women's basketball," Ackerman said.

That may be her overriding job, to keep the Big East at the table. Villanova and the other schools have an advantage now of not having to worry about football as the realignment wheels keep spinning. Fox already proved there is a value in a "basketball-centric" league.

Ackerman's resume is multi-faceted. So is her job.


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter

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