[Ed. Note: Valerie Ackerman is a trailblazer in women’s professional sports. Best known for her 10-year post as the founding President of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), she helped launch one of the world’s few premiere female professional sports leagues that continues to develop today.
But before helming the league, Ackerman was an attorney and an executive at the NBA—and before that, a pretty renowned hoopster in her own right. As one of the first women to receive an athletic scholarship at the University of Virginia, Ackerman was a four-year starter for the UVA Cavaliers and a three-time captain. Following a year of pro ball in Europe, Ackerman attended UCLA Law School before going to work for NBA Commissioner David Stern.
Bitter Lawyer recently spoke with Ackerman about her work as a pioneering female athlete, why she became a lawyer, and how her BigLaw training helped propel her to the top executive spot in her field.]
Val, after a very successful college career and some pro ball in Europe, you went to UCLA Law School. Was that always the plan? Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Yes. And I was actually more intent on being a lawyer than being a lawyer in sports. I can’t date it to a particular moment that I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. I was taken by the idea (or I guess the fantasy) of it. You know, as a kid dreaming of arguing before the Supreme Court. So, I guess I always wanted to be a lawyer.
College was when I brought law and sports together. Or, at least that’s when I thought about bringing the two together. I played one year of pro basketball in France, and I actually took the LSAT that year and sent out applications [from Europe]. When I got back, I went law school.
Did you try to get a job in sports right away?
Yes, but I didn’t succeed. I wanted to work for the NBA, but I got turned down. They didn’t have an HR department in those days, so I actually got two separate letters from two different people, each rejecting me.
I still have both letters.
So, what did you do?
I got a lot of advice and everyone said that if you want to be a lawyer working in sports, you should go be a lawyer first and get some real experience. That’s what I did.
Is that still good advice?
I think so. That’s what I always tell young lawyers who want to work for a league or a sports team—they need legal experience.
So where did you get your legal experience?
I worked for two years as an associate in the New York office of Simpson Thacher. I mostly worked as a corporate lawyer. I think the fact that I spent a lot of time looking at contracts was particularly helpful for my career.
That eventually helped me get a job working for the NBA. The league was just looking for that direct experience. It could have been anything: IP, labor, litigation… For me, it was corporate work. But I think another big factor for me was that I met a lot of really great people at Simpson Thacher who helped me make contacts at the NBA.
Do you think that your experience as a D1 athlete helped you at all as lawyer?
Yeah, I think so. Virginia didn’t cut much slack for athletes, so I had to be good at time management. Writing papers on long bus trips to Clemson taught me how to budget my time. And I learned a lot of discipline. Time management is a critical skill for any lawyer, so playing college sports teaches you to juggle a lot of things and how to prioritize.
It’s also not a cliché to talk about teamwork. That’s something you learn in sports, and it’s really important as a lawyer because you’re going to have to play a lot of different roles and be comfortable working with other people.
What was your best moment as a lawyer?
When I was a first-year associate, I was put on a deal that had a senior associate and a partner who were very high-strung. He was one of those typical partners, very hard charging and humorless, and that made him very intimidating.
For whatever reason, I came in really early one day. I think it was before 7:00, which was unusual for the office. (We typically started late and ended late.) So there I am, and the place is a ghost town. I think it was even kind of dark outside because it was winter. Anyway, the partner was there, and he walked by my office to get some coffee, and I just said hello to him, which I think kind of stopped him in his tracks because he wasn’t expecting me to be there. He was almost kind of speechless. It was a small moment, but I felt like I had earned the respect of someone who wasn’t easily impressed, and we ended up actually having a very good working relationship.
What was your worst moment as a lawyer?
It was also as a first-year. I was working on another deal with a different partner who was also very tough. He had left the office for a flight to Los Angeles. We had prepared a first draft for a securities transaction, and I think it was all kind of standard forms at this point. He was going to present the papers in person, and I had spent the afternoon scurrying to get them ready. When I finally got him out the door, I thought I would have peace while he was on the plane.
Four hours later, I hear my phone, and when I picked it up, I heard this whoosh sound. He was calling from the plane to let me know that I had made a big typo in the documents because I had misspelled the other lawyer’s name. I had to go back and fix it, which in those days meant hours with word processing and turning the document around, so I ended up staying really late for what was basically a typo. That was sort of a low moment.
What made you leave BigLaw?
I kind of went into it thinking it was a stepping-stone. That kind of work wasn’t really for me because I had this passion for sports. The actual moment that kicked it off though was when I got married to another lawyer in the firm. In those days, there was a policy against couples at the firm, so I decided it was time to leave and pursue my passion for sports law.
So, despite the two rejection letters, you went back to the NBA?
Yeah. There was an opening there. They had a very small legal department, and they were looking for a third lawyer to kind of fill in the gaps. Getting that job was the highlight of my life at that moment, and it wasn’t easy. I had to interview with the lawyers at the NBA and with [Commissioner] David [Stern], so it was a tough hiring process. But I got the call, and I was thrilled.
So, this whole “first President of the WNBA” thing. How did that come about?
I was there, for starters. I think a lot of it was right place, right time. But it was also part of a long progression for me that included my legal experience, and it was also the right time for a professional women’s league.
I think for David, it had always been a question of when, not if. And, in the early ‘90s, there were some really good things happening in women’s sports. For starters, women’s college basketball was getting a lot more attention, especially the women at UCONN. And the international success of the 1992 “Dream Team” with Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson helped USA Basketball put together a women’s team that won the gold in Atlanta in 1996.
Also worth mentioning: The economy was doing really well, and the NBA owners had money to invest in a new venture. So I think it was just a perfect time to pull the trigger. As for me, I had spent about eight years with the NBA, and I knew everyone involved really well, so that’s more of what I mean by right place, right time.
So what does a league president do?
A mix of things, and everyday is really different, which is great. First, it’s a lot of operations work, just day-to-day stuff to make sure you have a product to sell. You’re dealing with scheduling, players, officials, issues that come up with various teams, that kind of stuff.
The second thing is that you’re always looking at your strategic responsibilities because you’re always thinking about what’s next. With the WNBA, we expanded almost every year, so there was a lot of strategy work there.
Third, you do a ton of PR. There’s an endless stream of media requests, so you spend a lot of time talking to the press. You have a kind of ceremonial job to do as well. You’re making speeches, handing out trophies, putting in appearances and those kinds of things.
Was there a part of the job you liked best?
The best part was just being at the games, watching it all happen. I think for a lot of us, the WNBA is about a cause; it’s about doing something for women in sports. We felt like we were fighting for something. So, I was particularly proud to see it all happen, and to see young girls in the stands. That was the best part, to feel like I was part of something bigger than myself.
You’re now about four years removed from stepping down as the WNBA president. Is there anything you wish you’d done better?
We had some disappoints. Teams that folded, for example. Those where the darkest days. I think you always look back and ask if you could have done something different for those markets. On that score, yeah, I think about that. But, at the same time, I think we did a lot of things right in terms of using NBA assets and getting television network support and corporate sponsorship. I think the timing was also good. And I mostly just feel lucky to be so identified with the WNBA.
What do you think of the league now?
Female sports are in a more difficult stage now than they were when I was with the WNBA, whether you’re talking about basketball or soccer. The economy is worse and the novelty is gone. A lot needs to be done to build on what we began. But I think our society is ready for professional female sports because the quality of the product is really high.
And yet female sports aren’t anywhere near their male counterparts. Do you get that “Are we there yet?” question a lot from sports reporters? Do you feel like they’re missing something?
I did get that a lot. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Here’s one of my favorite stats: In our first year, we averaged about 9,000 people per game. In our second year, we broke the 10,000 barrier in terms of average attendance. I asked an NBA PR person to find out how long it took the NBA to get to that mark, and it turns out it took the league 29 years.
Now, I know that things were different back then—smaller country, no televised games, etc.—but the point is that you’re building a league, a brand. So it’s going to take a long time. It took the NBA a long time to get where it is. If you think about it, the league didn’t really get to the level it’s at today until the ‘80s with MJ and Magic.
Where’s attendance now?
It’s dipped. It bounces between 10,000 on average for its height, and has gone as low as an average of 7,000. But through that first 29 years, the NBA had a similar problem. Some years it was up, but a lot of years it was down.
Does it help the WNBA to have support from the NBA?
Unapologetically, yes. That support is critical, no question about it. From the brand, to the investments, to having employees with a lot of pro basketball experience. That being said, if the WNBA is going to be successful, it has to stand on its own two feet. It’s needs to be like women’s tennis in that way—the product has to be so great that it stands on its own.
As a woman who has worked in two male-dominated industries, do you think there’s a reason why we don’t see a lot of women making partner in BigLaw?
I don’t know how much I can speak to the law because I really only worked there for two years. But in both law and sports, I found that if you work hard and know what you’re doing, your gender really isn’t an issue. But maybe that’s just my experience because people respected me for working hard and working smart.
That said, I think women are more easily tripped up by work/life balance issues because they’re more inclined to think about their family. I know that I was a victim of the work/life balance struggle when I left the WNBA. Life for me was a high-wire act. My husband was still working as a lawyer on Wall Street, and I was the WNBA president—and before that at the NBA. So for 12 years, my kids had two parents working all the time, and I just felt like I needed a break. My kids deserved more.
But look, 25 years ago, this wouldn’t have been an issue at all because you didn’t see so many women working in either law or sports, so you didn’t see a whole crop of young women looking to work in those professions. I think a lot of this is changing, bit I hope that even more changes are on the way.
Val currently serves on the Board of Directors of USA Basketball, the Executive Committee of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and the National Board of Trustees for the March of Dimes.