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Big East’s Val Ackerman on Organizational Design, Female-Focused Philanthropy & League Positioning

By Van Ackerman, Big East
7 min read

You spent some two decades at the NBA/WNBA. What aspects of organizational design and business strategy did you take with you to the Big East Conference?


I was at the NBA for 16 years and had the opportunity to learn at the elbow of great business leaders like David Stern, Russ Granik and Rick Welts, all of whom helped transform the league into the massively successful entity that it is today. From gaining a fundamental understanding of basketball operations, to brand building, to social responsibility, to international growth, there were countless ideas and learnings that I was able to leverage when moving into college athletics.


When I took over as commissioner of the Big East, we were literally starting over from scratch. The American Athletic Conference (AAC) was left with the infrastructure of the old Big East, while we had the league name, a new television agreement with FOX Sports and the contract with Madison Square Garden for our men’s basketball tournament. While the challenge was daunting, building a conference office from a clean slate also afforded us a great deal of flexibility in structuring our operation. It also enabled me to hire a staff of individuals whom I considered  industry experts in  their respective disciplines (e.g., Joe D’Antonio in compliance and governance, John Paquette in sports media relations, Rick Gentile in broadcasting, Stu Jackson in basketball operations). Our recent hiring of long-time Villanova Athletics Director Vince Nicastro as our Deputy Commissioner and COO has added to our strong line-up.


There’s an important similarity between pro and collegiate league offices in that they all sit at the intersection of key stakeholders. Just like at the NBA, we do whatever we can to allow our schools to share best practices and grow together by leveraging their unique assets to elevate the league as a whole. We’ve tried to emulate some NBA programs as well – a good example being our “Freshmen Fundamentals” program, where we bring in freshmen men’s basketball players and offer ways to help ease their transition from high school to college. We host a similar program for upper class women’s basketball players called “Transition Game,” in which we give them tips for the next stage of life.


In terms of organizational design, I was aware when I started of the need for both core conference office operations functions (such as compliance, championships management, finance and sports information) as well as business functions that would allow us to maximize our assets and keep the Big East visible and at the forefront of intercollegiate athletics. With respect to the latter, Rick and our CMO, Ann Crandall, have been tasked with developing strategies in the marketing, sales, television and digital areas. This focus has led to an extraordinary partnership with FOX Sports, which has supported us in the presentation of Big East sports contests on linear networks and in the distribution of the Big East Digital Network on the Fox Sports Go mobile app. On the branding front, our presidents made known when I was hired their desire for a fresh identity for the conference that went beyond the “New Big East” or “Catholic 7”.  We have striven to make sure that everything our organization embodies —  from the way we’re perceived, to the people we hire, to the values we represent,  to the way we communicate with the outside world — is geared towards differentiation.


There are a number of differences between college athletics and the professional sports world, a key one being that each pro league is unique and essentially unchallenged as a business entity in its sport.  In college sports, there are 350 schools and 32 conferences in Division I alone, and so we operate in a more cluttered business environment as we seek television windows, media coverage, sponsors and visibility generally. That only reinforces the need for collaboration within a conference to achieve a common goal – in our case, becoming the best college basketball conference in the country, top to bottom. The success of our institutions nationally over the past few years is, we think, a testament to what a unified strategic plan can accomplish.


What revenue streams in college athletics are under leveraged or under optimized?


The answer for me is female-focused philanthropy, particularly when it comes to targeting former student athletes. I believe there’s significant upside to that category of donor – women like myself who were early Title IX recipients, had their educations paid for and their careers launched by athletics, and are now in a prime position to give back to their institutions. These women can be great resources to their alma maters because of what sports have done for them, yet it seems that most institutions choose to focus their energies on male donors instead. I think more can be done to cultivate female donors and in that way boost the revenues that are so critical to athletics operation, especially in funding capital projects.


Before joining the Big East, I served on the executive committee of a $3 billion capital campaign at my alma mater, the University of Virginia. In an effort to reach more women, we developed strategies that were designed to boost engagement, including a regular on-Grounds women and leadership conference, regional events and a giving catalog. We also did some research and found that prospective female donors tend to be very focused on where the money they donate is going to be spent. They may be more interested in specific programs or services, such as student-athlete career development, rather than simply donating to “general funds.” For that reason, the giving catalog resonated with them, as it offered an ala carte menu of ways they could direct their funding and helped them better visualize the impact.


Similarly, we found that relationship management of both male and female donors by coaches is critical.  At UVA, we encouraged the women’s sports coaches to maintain regular contact with former student-athletes in their programs (even if they hadn’t coached them) as way to keep those women connected with the school and, hopefully, inspired to give back. Having a coach show up at a meet-and-greet or address a group on a one-time basis probably isn’t enough to create the sustained connection needed to produce a regular or meaningful gift to athletics. While coaches today are certainly more time-pressed than ever, my advice is that they carve out time as often as possible to engage and show appreciation.


Did Villanova’s basketball championship help insure that the Big East has a seat at the “big kids table” for the foreseeable future?


Villanova’s win proved what we believed all along – that the Big East could and would remain a national powerhouse in men’s basketball. One of the most exciting elements of Villanova’s success is the 100% historical graduation rate of their men’s basketball players, a great testament to Jay Wright’s and Father Peter Donohue’s grasp of priorities. In general, the conference came out of reconfiguration in a very strong position. Thanks to our long-term agreement with Fox, every one of our games is nationally broadcast on linear television, and our conference tournament is played in the most prestigious basketball arena in the country. We have extraordinary coaches in the league, upholding a Big East tradition of great leadership on the sidelines, and our presidents, to a man, have committed the resources needed to maintain our historical standard of excellence and remain nationally competitive every year.


Because none of our schools participate in FBS football, basketball is the most prominent sport on each of our campuses, which we think is an advantage in terms of strategic focus, resource deployment and recruiting. We’re also proud that our leadership in the sport extends beyond the playing court – Creighton AD Bruce Rasmussen is the Vice Chair of the NCAA Basketball Committee, Butler AD Barry Collier is on the NIT Committee, Stu Jackson is on the NCAA Basketball Rules Committee, and I serve on the Men’s Basketball Oversight Committee. DePaul AD Jean Lenti Ponsetto is also Chair of the Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee. There are several other individuals within our league who are serving on important committees within the NCAA governance structure, so our place at the table remains significant.


It’s interesting to note that last year, non-autonomy schools won the national championships in four of the most visible sports outside of football – Villanova in men’s basketball, Connecticut in women’s basketball, Coastal Carolina in baseball, and North Dakota in men’s ice hockey. It proves that factors beyond autonomy-level resources are required for success at the highest level in college sports, not the least of which are adaptability to the changing environment, good management and smart use of the resources that are available. I think our results over the past few years have proven what the Big East can do, and I’m optimistic that exciting chapters remain for us as we look to the future.