Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman sits down with AthleticDirectorU to discuss the state of the Big East in 2020. Ackerman provides insights on the overall state of women’s basketball, the addition of UConn, student-athlete mental health, and measuring success for the league.
The State Of The Big East With Commissioner Val Ackerman
- - How do you feel about the college women's basketball product overall?
- - Could women's basketball achieve better parity by balancing scholarship opportunities across women's sports?
- - How is the Big East looking to profile women's basketball with the return of UConn and added levels of exposure to the sport?
- - How do you view UConn's football situation, as it joins the conference?
- - How will the Big East measure the successes of adding UConn back into the Big East?
- - What are the benefits and challenges you are seeing with implementing mental health initiatives league-wide?
Matt Roberts: Hi, Matt Roberts with D1.ticker and Athletic Director U here at the 2019 Women Leaders National Convention in sunny Phoenix, joined by Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. Good to see you again, Val.
Val Ackerman: Hey, Matt, great to be here.
MR: I want to start with we’re in October, basketball season is about a month away roughly, of course, your background in women’s basketball, specifically, we don’t have enough time to talk about, all of the long list of your experiences in that space. But I do want to ask specifically about how you view the college product of women’s basketball currently. And then let’s dive into some UConn stuff, but the overall look of the product of women’s basketball, how do you feel where we at on that?
VA: Well, I look just from a real macro perspective, Matt. I think women’s basketball in its totality remains the best positioned of all the women’s sports and girls sports from my perspective. I mean, if you look at what’s happening at the youth level, the vibrant high school game, girls basketball is still a top sport in high school level. Interestingly, volleyball has now eclipsed it as the number one sport, team sport for girls at the high school level…
MR: Participation, yeah.
VA: …but still very high numbers.
MR: Yeah, sure.
VA: Yeah. But – and then you get to the collegiate level where you have the widespread playing. You’ve got the broad television coverage, principally through ESPN, but other networks, and then the women’s final four is one of the top events in the game. And then you look at the national team, playing for the seventh straight gold medal next year in Tokyo and then internationally. There are many, many club opportunities for women to play in after they get to that level of the sport. So, back to the college game. I think as part of that sort of, you know, puzzle, if you will, I think women’s college basketball is in a very, very strong position. I think the quality of play, it varies candidly. I think if you look at the very top tier teams, they’ve got the best players.
MR: Mm-hmm, sure.
VA: They’ve got the best athletes.
VA: And that… and as a result, they’re, they’re winning national championships and to the trained eye, the quality of the product looks, looks very good. If you get down to a lower level Division I team or you get down to a Division II team, if you’re a fan, it’s probably not going to look the same…
VA: …as a WNBA game or a top tier college game. But in terms of its acceptance, I think in the college space, in terms of the opportunities that it’s created for so many women over many decades and, you know, what it continues to do, again, at the elite levels with the WNBA and the Olympic team and what’s happening internationally, you know, I think it’s added, it’s added a great deal to the sport and I think it’s going to remain very strong for a long time.
MR: You noted a couple things in that sequence there, parity being a challenge. Opportunities for female student athletes, and some people would point to 15 scholarships in women’s basketball, could we achieve better parity by balancing that?
VA: You know, I, that was, that was my view. I did a white paper some years ago on women’s basketball at the request of the NCAA office. They’re trying to get their heads around where the sport was and how it can continue to grow…
VA: …as other sports, particularly, volleyball and some of the emerging sports pick up steam and that was an issue cited by many as how could we replicate maybe in a better way what you see on the men’s side where the, the biggest schools dominate in many respects tournament but you could still have a…
VA: Yeah, Butler breakthrough or Villanova win a national championship.
VA: Or a Loyola Chicago get to the Final Four. And the facts is if you look at the, if you look at the facts, that that isn’t happening in women’s basketball as much. The… it would be, it would be very unusual for a smaller school to make it to the Final Four in the ways that you’ve seen on the men’s side.
VA: And, and I think frankly, on the men’s side, that’s helped make that an, an amazing event…
VA: …because of what that does with the Cinderella piece of the story. So, I do think it’s hard imagine how these other teams can get better without access maybe to more of the good players. I think reducing scholarships could be one of the answers.
VA: Obviously, on the men’s side, there’s 13 scholarships, they did cut back in part to try to spread things around a little bit. So I think that’s something to look at. I don’t know where that stands within the membership. I think there’s been some debate on that and some folks have worried about the prospect of giving up…
VA: …sort of hard-fought money on the women’s side, but I, I think my view would be, well, let’s make sure it still goes to women’s sports. But, but it certainly can’t hurt I think to have at least for the fan portion the, the interest portion of the women’s game to perhaps have some more schools in the mix come tournament time.
MR: Sure. And, and again, you are adding arguably the most visible women’s basketball program with UConn returning to the league. And you all have been progressive and innovative on how you’re capturing a lot of that content and specifically thinking about miking up coaches during games, which was super interesting when it first came out. I think we all were very curious to see how that would play out. With UConn’s return, added level of exposure for women’s basketball, how are you and the overall league thinking about profiling the sport?
VA: Well, obviously, it’s a bit of a game changer for us with, with our women’s… our basketball program, women’s basketball program. There are going to be of course daunting competition for our guys and our guys know that. So they’re excited, but they’re, you know, they’re… they want to win games too. But I think everyone agrees in our league that what they can do, the Huskies can do to elevate the overall quality of play in a way that benefits everybody is pretty real. And that I think would be the goal. You know, they’re going to set a new standard and our schools are going to work hard to try to keep up with that and certainly are going to play to win. In terms of how we capitalize, you know, we, like on the men’s side, I mean, we’ve got the relationship with Fox Sports. Their package for women’s basketball is not as robust as it is on the men’s side.
VA: We’ve got every game…
MR: And you’ve got… still doing some SNY stuff.
VA: Yeah, well, we could. I mean, UConn has that now. That’ll be for Fox to decide.
VA: And for us to decide how any sub licenses would work beyond the Fox deal. We do have a sub license with CBS Sports and they’ve got a couple of women’s games in their package this year. But I think, you know, what Fox can do and I think is prepared to do to elevate with respect to their women’s basketball coverage with UConn as part of the equation, I think what it can do for our women’s basketball tournament, where the numbers candidly have been modest, that’s sort of a, I think that’s a national phenomenon. The conference tournaments just don’t draw as well on the women’s side as they do on the men’s side.
VA: But I think if UConn is back, that’ll, that’ll likely change that because their fans are terrific. They travel. So we’re looking forward to getting them back in the fold there. And then I’m just frankly looking forward to Geno’s brain trust. I’ve known him for 25 years dating back to my days in the WNBA. Really what UConn did in the early ‘90s with their rivalry with Tennessee in particular, but their ascent to become one of the top programs really helped put women’s college basket on the, on the map in the modern era with ESPN behind them. And so, that really helped bring the WNBA into being in 1996, ’97. And so, I’ve had a chance to sort of learn from Geno. He, he speaks his mind which is very… always very refreshing and interesting. And so, I think we’re going to look to tap into his know-how, too, to think about some fresh ways perhaps that we can keep that great sport at a high level.
MR: How do you view UConn’s football situation and clearly the Big East doesn’t sponsor football anymore. I’ve got to imagine David Benedict and the Powers in Storrs want to continue playing FBS football, specifically as it pertains to the health of an overall athletic department and what football can do in a successful environment versus potentially in a struggling environment how could it impact others, how do you view that situation?
VA: Well, you know, obviously in the new Big East, we did not make football one of the sponsored sports. The vision there was to go back to the roots of the league…
VA: …and try to build our successes on the back of the sport of basketball. And so, the last six years, I think has proven that we’ve been able to do that with two national championships and a lot of NCAA Tournament bids. And a lot of, you know, ranked teams that are proving that with, with basketball as a focus, it can still be done at a national level. You know, we had to have a meeting of the minds with UConn about that, because I think a few years ago, they were very focused on their football enterprise that was driving their, their decision about what conference they wanted to be part of. And I think now after kind of living that experience and really thinking hard about their brand, about what’s important to them, I think they, at least, part of them has come to the realization that basketball really is, is a core sport for them. And they… that’s where we line up with them, this notion that basketball can be a centerpiece. On the football side, our understanding, I can’t speak for Dave Benedict or their administration, but is they want to continue to play at the FBS level. My understanding is that they will not be staying in the American Athletic Conference to do that.
VA: So they’ve got to find another home or be independent for football. Independence will require them to develop their own schedule.
VA: My read is they’ve got plenty of schools that are happy to play them if they if they remain independent. I think there’s a possibility that they might be able to forge a new path as an independent or work with other like-minded schools on, on how, how kind of they could reconfigure among themselves.
VA: A bowl pathway, obviously, would be something they would have to figure out. But, but that again, that’s not for us. I mean, that’s for them to sort of determine on their own. I think the good news for us is that, as it relates to basketball, they really were all in on our vision of a basketball-centric conference, women’s basketball, of course, is, you know, we’re thrilled about and then they’re going to bring 18 other sports to the Big East, and they’re going to be bringing some really A-level competition in a lot…
MR: Sure. Baseball has been great for a lot of years.
VA: …in a lot of the sports. Field hockey has been a national champion playing for the Big East as an affiliate for the last six years. So we’re really excited about that. And then, of course, the rivalries that will get reignited in some cases and then formed anew in others, we think are, are really going to be a lot of fun.
MR: Is getting UConn back success enough or if we look back on this move 10, 15, 20 years from now, how will you guys as a lead to find success of getting UConn back in the fold?
VA: Well, it was really built around, I’d say, most of all the, the basketball prospects, what they could do for us. I think, for us looking back and if it’s 10 years, if you’re asking, I’d like to think that we’ve been able to renew or stay at a high level with our national television arrangements.
VA: That was part of our thinking was, “Hey, we’re pretty good today. But what do we need to be in six years or eight years when we’re six years specifically when we’re back in the market with our national television agreement?” What make, what is going to make us an attractive as a TV property in this day and age? You know, and we think our basketball brands can help do that. We don’t have football that we’re selling, but we do have high-level basketball. So it was a forward-looking move in most respects. And I think that’ll be borne out by our, our linear versus digital, how we net out in that score. But I think for us, it’s really pretty basic. It’s, can we keep winning national championships in the sport of basketball? You know, can we continue to function at a high level? Will these programs still bring a lot of pride to their schools? Could we have Butler repeat again? I mean, that was one of the biggest things that ever happened to this small school in Indiana.
MR: Sure, sure.
VA: You know, put them on the map. And Providence is the same, I mean, we have some really small schools. Seton Hall could be in the top-10 team this year going into the start of the season. That’s, that’s really because of their basketball program. So our presidents believe in the value of that as a front porch proposition and everything else and I think that was really at the core, you know, bringing UConn in. So if they can deliver on that in some way, certainly in women’s basketball, we think they have a better shot near term. I think that’ll be, you know, that’ll be seen as a success from our standpoint.
MR: The TV piece is such an interesting dynamic and you, I’m not going to say you said this exactly but you almost indicated flat could be okay…
MR: …which the market will bear that for a number of properties that are going to be out there before you.
VA: Yeah, yeah.
MR: And professionally and collegiately, I mean, just what an interesting space with all the changes innovatively there. Mental health, you guys, I think you’re one… on your third or fourth year of doing a league summit. We talked a little bit about the challenges of the league leading but then implementation at the institutional level. So let’s run through that a little bit. And what are you guys seeing as benefits and challenges?
VA: Well, as you noted, we’re, we conducted this past June our third conference wide mental health summit, we now call it our Student-Athlete Well-Being Forum. We do it on the front end of our annual SAAC meeting. So that guarantees we’re going to have 20 student athletes, best of the best in our league in attendance, contributing, listening, and so on. It has grown since the first year. We do it on campus. So we’ve had it at Georgetown, Butler, Providence respectively. Next year, we’re going to have it, have it at a different campus to be determined. Our focus this… focus early on was mental health. Now it’s expanded. We talk about things like sleep, for example, coping with transitions. How does a student athlete deal with injury? How do they deal with a career-ending injury? How do they get ready for the part of their life when they’re not playing sports anymore? And they got to shift their identity to something else. These are really hard moments…
VA: …for athletes. How do they deal with homesickness? All the things that students generally have to go with? And then how do they deal in the cases where they have some really significant issues? You know, they’re, they’re dealing with anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder or something worse? Because we have students across the board that have those problems, and, and part of our job is to help, help them. So, the benefits, I think, are having this dialogue…
VA: …so our schools can share best practices. Another benefit that we’ve pushed is the need for destigmatization…
VA: …because many students and student athletes both don’t want to come forward. They’re just, they don’t want people to know.
MR: Nothing is wrong.
VA: Nothing is wrong.
MR: Right. I’ve got a hold of it.
VA: They may… young man, especially…
VA: …African American young men especially don’t, don’t want to come forward. They don’t want to show any kind of weakness. So part of the battle here is getting them to come forward. Then step two is when they come forward, making sure they have some place to go. And I think that’s really, from our dialogues within at least our league and I think from colleagues I talk to, making sure that there are adequate resources on campus for student athletes to not have to wait, you know, a month for an appointment.
MR: Yeah, right.
VA: Or to be able to go, just come forward in a private way versus walking in the front door, a big, tall basketball player walking in the front door of the campus counseling center is a deterrent to coming forward.
VA: So making sure that we have the resources that we need, and I would say that is it has been identified by our schools as one of the top, top items, something that I would have to deal with at the board level but making sure the resources is there… are there to, to offer that support.
MR: Critical issue. Always great to catch up.
MR: Thanks, Val.
VA: Thanks, Matt.