Val Ackerman: The WNBA’s Driving Force

Bitter Success Interviews, Lawyer 32 Comments

[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.

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  • Alma F.

    FINALLY, an intelligent post about a successful woman without the petty sexual inuendo.  It is very gratifying to see that Bitter Lawyer has finally discovered that women CAN be successful without focusing on their breasts or other female body parts.  This is a tribute to women that reminds us that we CAN be respected for our minds and for being smart, in addition to being beautiful.  Men, take note of this women.  We are able to stand up for ourselves, and there is hope for other beautiful and smart women, like me.  Now I just have to stick with it and work hard, not get taken down by men who are only interested in superficial relationships, and succeed both in my personal and professional life.

  • BL1Y

    What’s the WNBA?

  • Alma F.

    BL1Y, Ms. Ackerman is a seasoned lawyer and has done very well for herself.  And the WNBA is the Women’s National Basketball Association.  For a man that tries to be so worldly, you really aren’t that together, BL1Y.  I suggest you stop hanging out in bars like Ulysses long enough to figure out that women over 30 also are worthy of a look-see.

  • Mike in NY

    Good interview.

  • Craig

    That ain’t no “Bitter” Lawyer

  • BL1Y

    Has anyone experienced real teamwork while at a law firm?  My experience has been that assignments are given out and then attorneys run around on their own for hours or days, and then report in to the next person up the chain of command.  You might get some feedback or followup questions, but little real collaboration.  You’re more likely working for someone than working with them.  I’m sure that works for some people, but it might help explain why lawyers develop such terrible social and management skills.

  • Anon

    Val’s cool.  Not easy to promote woman’s pro basketball.

  • Anonymous

    That was the saddest ‘best moment’ in law I’ve ever heard—I almost just dropped out of law school.

  • Ex Bitter Lawyer

    @8:27:  I hear that.  Best moments in law are pretty brutal to describe or experience, for that matter.  Unless you’re a DA, or PD, and you’re actually saving lives or putting murderers in prison, it’s a job.  Fact.  The good news is, it’s solid training.  Look Val.  She’s got a pretty cool job.  If she weren’t a lawyer, she wouldn’t have it.

  • Lawyer Bob

    Kind of amazing that the WNBA is still standing because so many women’s leagues fold in a year or two. I don’t know if Val is right that it will “make it” long-term like the NBA did, but she kind of changed the way I think about startup leagues.

  • BL1Y

    Motocross, X-Games and the like seem to be doing pretty well, especially when it comes to merchandising.  I think this is because they bring something interesting that you don’t see in existing sports.  But WNBA doesn’t look like it brings anything new to the table.  It’s almost like watching the minor leagues of the NBA.  For women’s sports to take off, they should concentrate on sports that aren’t already hugely popular, like volleyball and beach polo, instead of just being a second-rate version of the men’s sport.

  • Marcela

    nice point. team work is critical in sports and at the firm.

  • BL1Y

    Marcela: Any anecdotes you can share about how teamwork made a difference in something you were working on at a law firm?  From my experience “teams” at law firms are just individuals who occasionally e-mail questions or memos to each other.

  • Doug

    I agree on the team work point. Not really surprised that BL1Y doesn’t see it that way, though. Don’t know where he worked, but it sounds like it was awful. BL1Y, you talk like you’re a 20-year vet of BigLaw, but have you considered the possibility that your experience was the exception to the rule?

  • BitterPD

    BL1Y, kind of sounds like you’re just not a “team player.” I think everyone else on here gets it. Maybe you’re missing something now, and maybe you were missing it in BigLaw.

  • BL1Y

    The experiences of my coworkers have been largely the same.  Most of our assignments are just “Go do some research on this question and send me a memo on it when you’re done.” Maybe it is just where I’m working, but I’d like to hear what sort of actual team work other people have had at law firms.

  • esqsss

    There is such a thing as teamwork, at least in some of the smaller/medium sized firms.  The difference it makes in the work experience is phenomenal, both to productivity and to morale

  • BL1Y

    Some sort of example would be nice, rather than just rumors that it exists.  I bet lots of the senior associates and partners think we have team work, when really they just have a couple people working on independent parts of the same project and call them a “team.”

  • BitterPD

    I bounce ideas off of my coworkers everyday. If I’m slammed, they might sub for me if I have an appearance to make in court. We read each other’s briefs and offer notes and suggestions. I’ve helped half the office make exhibits because I’m better at photoshop and powerpoint than most of the other lawyers. I regularly get advice about jury selection from more seasoned lawyers. The list goes on, BL1Y.

  • Anonymous


  • Brett

    BL1Y, teamwork is essential in the firms I’ve been a part of.  You know…those lowly “mid level” firms that you would never consider working at.  Those same firms also offer a better working environment…a place where you don’t have to worry about being sh*t on by the senior partners.  My personal experiences are the same…bouncing ideas, brainstorming trial tactics, helping people get out of the weeds, etc.  If you work someplace where you’re essentially a research tool, you’ll never get to experience the fun part of being a lawyer.  Of course, you will get paid more; but, I’d rather take $25K less and be happy where I worked.

  • BL1Y

    Thanks BitterPD.  Any idea what makes your office so cooperative?  Size?  The fact that it’s public defense?  Just the personalities that ended up there?

  • BitterPD

    Bl1Y, I think it’s a combination of some of factors. Size does help. There are 15 of us, which makes it just big enough to avoid people you don’t love, but just small enough to know everyone by name. I don’t think the PD thing has a lot to do with it directly. It can be a pretty brutal job, and although we don’t compete in the same way some BigLaw folks do, we do get bogged down and overwhelmed by stress, so that makes team worker harder at times. That said, we all have a certain outlook when it comes to life, work, etc. Perhaps were more inclined to value team work. I’ll say this much, most of our clients are at least indirectly where they are because a broken team (school, family, neighborhood, community) let them down at some point early in their life. Maybe that means something. Not sure.

  • BL1Y

    Brett: I don’t think I’ve ever put down mid-sized firms.  But, when you’re pushing $200k in student loans that $160k paycheck (oh how I’ll miss it) is pretty persuasive.  BitterPD: I worked in a PD office a while back and can definitely say it’s easier to get motivated working for someone in actual trouble rather than someone who needs a typo fixed RIGHT NOW!

  • Brett

    $200K???  Good Lord, boy!  I thought my son got ripped off and he had $120K after law school.

  • Brett

    Also, I think it’s the personalities that make the office better.  I worked as an ADA for years and it seems that the criminal trial attorneys have less of that “I’m the boss do as I say” attitude.  You need the team work to survive.  The PD’s always had the best characters in their office; I think because they had to rely more on showmanship (for the total loser cases).  I had a lot of respect for the PD’s that I went against…all of them were solid people.

  • BitterPD

    Seriously, how did it get to 200K? Is that law school plus undergrad?

  • BL1Y

    No debt from undergrad, it’s all from law school.  It’s not quite $200k.  I think it was $185k when I graduated.  Going to school in NYC drives your debt up because the living expenses are so high.  Oh, and this is with $25k in scholarships (total, not per year), so I suppose it could be worse.

  • Guano Dubango

    I kind of enjoy these posts, but why are there no attractive females posting?  Are they afraid to give us men their opinions?  I wonder if they all think that we want them just to sit quietly and think whatever we men think?  Does anyone know what their problem is?  I think we should have more input from attractive female women, no?

  • BL1Y

    Yeah, where’s KateLaw?  She seemed pretty non-delusional and self absorbed and capable of creating an opinion that is reasonable and not completely neurotic.

  • Guano

    Yes, it seems that only the loud unattractive women comment with impugnity.  I do like LF10, but cannot verify her attractiveness.  In my country, unattractive women are best left alone to sharpen their teeth gnawing on hippo bones.  But if I say to such a woman in the USA that she is not beautiful, she gets very offensive.

  • KateLaw

    Ha, I try..  In my experience, teamwork/collaborative open work atmospheres are established by the partners at the top.  I’ve only worked in two small-mid size firms and I was definitely at the bottom at both subject to the tone set by the powers that be.  One was dominated by some egotistical older partners who didn’t even want to listen to the questions I had about the tasks they assigned -forget about sharing opinions or ideas that may have actually contributed to something.  The other firm was absolutely the best place to work in that the partners created a very open environment.  I think teamwork has a lot to do with an open communicative atmosphere.  It also has to do with people putting their egos aside and being willing to listen because better outcomes truly do come out of intelligent and goal-oriented people contributing freely and equally.  Firms are like any company –there is a culture that develops there and it has a direct influence on its output.  If the culture is negative (and a lack of teamwork is extremely undesirable for any successful business), the quality of work will suffer.  I think about how much effort large corporations put into promoting culture, teamwork, recognition, motivation, positivity, etc. etc., and it baffles me as to how these law firms/senior partners plan on being successful in the long term.  As to the BL1Y’s debt, that is rather exorbitant.  However, it could be worse.  One thing that’s always made me feel better about my own law school debt is my sister’s med school debt -topping off at approx 248K.  Who knows if that will ever be repaid given the uncertain direction of the medical profession.