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From being a dominant player on the parquet court at the University of Virginia to now overseeing one of the nation’s preeminent intercollegiate athletic conferences, Val Ackerman truly has risen to the pinnacle at every level of sports. A natural leader who exemplifies the perfect balance of business savvy and sports innovation, Ackerman remains a steadfast champion for women’s sports. With her continued success now spanning the last three decades, she is most deserving of the 2016 Billie Jean King Contribution Award.
Ackerman, the daughter of a high school athletic administrator, has been a record-breaker since her days as a three-sport athlete at Hopewell Valley Central High School in New Jersey. Her 1,466 points set the school’s varsity basketball career record for points scored by any player, and she set the school’s career scoring record as a field hockey halfback. Ackerman also ran on her school’s track team and, foreshadowing her later success off the field of play, she graduated as the salutatorian of her class.
At the University of Virginia, Ackerman was one of the school’s first female athletes to receive an athletic scholarship, five years after the passage of Title IX. She was a starter for the Cavaliers’ basketball team for four years, captain for three, and was twice named Academic All-American; she was also the school’s first female basketball player to score 1,000 points. After earning a B.A. in Political and Social Thought from UVA, Ackerman played one year of basketball for the club team Union Cosnoise Sportive Basket in the French pro league.
Ackerman earned a law degree from UCLA in 1985 and worked for two years as a corporate and banking associate in New York. In 1988, she was hired as a staff attorney for the National Basketball Association, and then served as special assistant to Commissioner David Stern. Ackerman was later promoted to Vice-President of Business Affairs at the NBA.
In 1989, Ackerman was one of the NBA’s first appointees to the Board of Directors of USA Basketball — the organization responsible for the selection and training of the teams that represent the United States in international tournaments, including the World Cup and the Olympic Games. In that role, she acted as a liaison between the NBA and USA Basketball for the 1992 Olympic Games, 1994 World Championships and 1996 Olympic Games. Ackerman was a driving force behind the creation of the 1995-96 USA Basketball Women’s National Team program that culminated with a 60-0 record and the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
In 1996, Ackerman was named the first President of the WNBA. “It was the job of a lifetime. The launch of the league was so well-received and such a milestone for women’s team sports, and the players were such powerful role models,” she says of her time at the WNBA. Ackerman would become the first woman ever to successfully launch and operate a women’s team sports league for a historic run of eight years. Due, in part, to her leadership and determination, the WNBA has endured and is celebrating its 20th season this year.
In 2005, Ackerman was elected president of USA Basketball for the 2005-08 term, leading the organization to an overall competitive record of 222-23 and gold medal performances by the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Ackerman also served as the U.S. representative to the Central Board of International Basketball Federation from 2006-2014. This summer, the USA Women’s National Basketball Team won their sixth consecutive gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games.
Today, Ackerman leads the Big East as Commissioner of ten universities: Butler, Creighton, DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence College, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and Xavier. Leveraging her well-honed business acumen, Ackerman has repositioned a once in-flux organization into a national powerhouse, with Villanova winning the 2016 NCAA Championship in men’s basketball.
In addition to serving as Big East Commissioner, Ackerman is a member of the adjunct faculty for Columbia University’s graduate sports management program. She serves on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, the Board of Directors for the National Consortium for Academics and Sports, and the Board of Directors of the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.
As a long-time supporter of the Women’s Sports Foundation, Ackerman has participated in numerous summits, panels and events over three decades including its Annual Salute to Women in Sports, Athlete Leadership Connection and National Girls and Women in Sports Day. She also provided expert review for the Foundation’s 2016 study of intercollegiate coaching, Beyond X’s and O’s.
The Foundation is proud to present the Billie Jean King Contribution Award to Val Ackerman. Her legacy of work in sports, business and academia has fostered and empowered women and girls to pursue sports, not just as players on the field, but as leaders in business and beyond.
The award is earned by the demonstration of a continuing, lasting commitment and dedication to the growth of sports, fitness and physical activity for women and girls. The award, given since 1980, is presented each year at the Annual Salute to Women in Sports. Learn more here.