Founding WNBA president Val Ackerman became the Big East Conference Commissioner in mid-2013, helping the conference establish itself after a massive realignment that included the addition of Butler University.
Ackerman was in town Thursday to speak at the fourth annual College of Communication Symposium on Butler’s campus.
Before that event, she took time out to talk to The Score about the Big East, Butler, the conference’s future growth plans and a recent controversy involving the WNBA.
Schoettle: How do you see the state of the Big East right now?
Ackerman: The conference is in great shape at the four-year mark after what brought this all together. It was a tough first couple of years—getting the TV deal, the name of the conference secured and the deal to play at Madison Square Garden, which is so important to our schools and coaches. Putting together all the infrastructure, the staff … we had nothing. It was pretty chaotic, to be honest. With that behind us, we’re moving now.
Schoettle: Is the conference profitable, or at least bringing in enough money to cover its expenses?
Ackerman: We have a favorable 12-year deal with Fox Sports which is a pillar for us. We’re in year four of that deal. So thanks principally to the Fox deal but also to sponsor and ticket-sale revenue, the conference is financially healthy.
Schoettle: People within college sports are saying other schools may try to lure men’s basketball coach Chris Holtmann away from Butler this upcoming offseason. Given that Big East schools don’t have significant football revenue, is there a challenge for them to keep their basketball coaches from getting lured away?
Ackerman: That’s a concern for any conference. I hope what the Big East offers—the ability to be on national TV, have great competition and play in Madison Square Garden—is enough to retain coaches. And since many of our schools don’t have football, basketball is the primary sport. Coaches don’t have to labor in the shadow of football. If you look at it, our record at keeping coaches has been good.
Schoettle: Is 10 teams too few for the Big East?
Ackerman: Ten is not too few. The Big 12 has 10. The Ivy League has eight. Other conferences have 10. Ten has turned out good for us to have an even balance. The coaches favor the schedule with 10 teams. The home-and-home conference schedule has accelerated rivalries. For now, 10 is good. What the future holds, I couldn’t say.
Schoettle: Is the Big East considering adding schools?
Ackerman: We’re paying attention to what other conferences are doing, but we’re not actively looking for other schools.
Schoettle: What do schools like Butler and Creighton from the Midwest bring to the Big East?
Ackerman: They were brought in due to alignment … their vision, mission and values. Butler is the only non-Catholic school, but Butler has a strong dedication to a service commitment which is important, and of course basketball. Butler, Creighton and Xavier have great fans, great buildings and great building atmospheres.
Schoettle: Does the name of the Big East pose a branding problem for the conference, given that not all teams are from the East?
Ackerman: It’s technically not reflective of who we are, but the name has so much equity I don’t see it changing.
Schoettle: If any schools were added to the conference, what part of the country would the Big East look to for new members?
Ackerman: It would be within the existing footprint. You have to be mindful of travel, especially with basketball and other sports that have weekday games and more than one game a week.
Schoettle: Are you surprised Butler has been able to compete within the conference as well as they have, moving from the smaller Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 then to the Big East in a few short years?
Ackerman: No. I sat in Lucas Oil Stadium [in 2010] and watched them at the Final Four. People thought it was a flash in the pan. It wasn’t. They’ve proven themselves. They have great leadership with Athletic Director Barry Collier and President James Danko.
Schoettle: How much more difficult is it for the Big East to carve out a niche for itself with conferences like the Big Ten migrating east, adding teams from the East Coast and playing its conference tournament in Washington, D.C.?
Ackerman: Our identification—on the Eastern Seaboard in particular—is very solid. I would consider the Midwest more Big Ten territory, but I don’t think that really hurts us. We have worked to develop some rivalries between the conferences and take advantage of the overlap. The Gavitt Games [which pits eight Big East teams against eight Big Ten teams] open the season with a bang. There’s room for everybody.
Schoettle: Off topic, were you surprised by the allegations made about life in the WNBA by recently retired player Candice Wiggins? [Wiggins recently claimed that she was harassed by other players in the league for being heterosexual. Wiggins played in the WNBA from 2008 to 2016. Ackerman was the president of the WNBA from 1996 to 2005.]
Ackerman: Was I surprised to see [Wiggins’ claims]? Yes. I’m not sure where she’s coming from or basing it on. We always prided the WNBA on being wholly inclusive. The WNBA today remains a beacon in bringing so many people and fan bases together. [What Wiggins described] is not the environment I would have expected from the league or from its players. It’s not the WNBA that I know.