Founding WNBA president proud to see league flourish

20 wnbaFor 20 weeks, to commemorate the WNBA’s 20th season (the MSR having covered each season), the MSR sports section is featuring a column or article on the W in our “20 in 20” series.


This week: Fond memories

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman proudly looks back at what she was an integral part of and smiles. “We were very aware that others had tried to start women’s pro basketball leagues and all those had failed,” recalled Ackerman, the WNBA’s founding president (1996-2005). “We knew we had our work cut out for us.”

Two decades later, and for Ackerman about a decade since, she stepped down as league leader, she avoided any “I told you so” remarks to this longtime W reporter as she reflected back during a recent MSR phone interview.

“We thought our chances were strong because of a few factors,” explained Ackerman on the 1996 start of the league. “One, we thought the summer season would be an advantage because it gave us television windows that weren’t available at any other times of year. We thought we had better support than any women’s league ever had because of the NBA. And finally we had the benefit of timing because we were coming off the (1996) Atlanta Olympics, an important and powerful platform.”

Other influential factors included a new heighten interest in women’s college basketball, sparked by the emergence of UConn, which won its first of many national championships right here in Minneapolis in 1995.

Val Ackerman, first president of the WBNA
Val Ackerman, first president of the WNBA Photo by Sphilbrick via Wikimedia Commons

As a result, “TV, timing, and the NBA I think made [founding the WNBA] hopeful. Here we are at 20 [and] it is going strong,” said Ackerman proudly.

Unlike the NBA, however, college and the WNBA, seemingly since the league began, have a symbiotic win-win relationship of sorts, noted Ackerman. “There is no ‘one-and-done’ or a ‘two-and-done’ in the women’s game. That does give the players more visibility because of the extensive coverage at the collegiate level and the way people follow the Final Four,” she said.

“The WNBA [has] benefited from the women who came into the league as stars. Then it really [becomes] the next stage of stardom.”

But this reality doesn’t automatically guarantee the incoming rookies instant success, warned Ackerman. “They are now playing against the best in the world, and in some cases have to prove themselves again because now they are being tested by better players. It’s another level they have to establish themselves in.”

Ackerman in a previous 20 in 20 installment shared her recollection on “The Shot” (MSR, “The Shot heard ’round the WNBA world,” September 1, 2016).

This was just one of many memories she looked back upon and smiled.

Detroit’s last to first championship season of 2003 ranks high up there as well, she pointed out. Topped by a finals-clinching three-pointer by Deanna Nolan to defeat Los Angeles, it was the then Motor City franchise’s first league title.  Now the Dallas Wings, the Shock at the time was the first team in U.S. pro sports history to go from the worst record in one season (9-23 in 2002) to league champions the next.

“The team was ready to fold,” remembered Ackerman when the owner essentially “at the 11th hour” gave then-coach Bill Laimbeer one year to turn things around. “My trips to Detroit that year were unbelievable. Seeing those crowds coming out to cheer on that team who had been left for dead.

“I remember seeing [NBA legend] Karl Malone at those games — his daughter Cheryl Ford was on that team,” continued Ackerman. “Swin Cash, Ruth Riley, Deanna Nolan [also were team members] — they were amazing.”

Seattle’s first title run in 2004, which ironically would be her last year as president (Ackerman would step down in 2005), ranks up there in her W memory bank, she said. But the former president also shared some disappointing moments that took place during her tenure.

“Every team that we folded was a very sad day,” reiterated Ackerman. “Some we were able to relocate: Utah to San Antonio, and Orlando to Connecticut. But some others like Cleveland, we had to disband. You had players, coaches, staff that had to be told that [their team] wasn’t going to keep going. Those were dark days.

“The only solace is that that happens in all leagues,” she said.

Finally, as commissioner of one of America’s top college conferences, knowing that the W is more than a passing fancy makes Ackerman proud: “It has been exciting to see the vision that we had being fulfilled.”


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to