Former WNBA commissioner explains how NBA helped league launch

Big East Conference commissioner Val Ackerman. (Julie Jacobson/AP)

Amid calls for the NHL to take an ownership stake in women’s hockey, a former WNBA commissioner says the women’s basketball league wouldn’t have survived without the NBA.

Val Ackerman was WNBA president for the first nine of its 23 years.

Now commissioner of the NCAA’s Big East Conference, Ackerman was also a consultant for the NHL on women’s hockey back in 2011 and 2012.

Her recommendation then to the NHL was "I didn’t think the time was right for a WNHL," she told The Canadian Press.

"I thought the sport wasn’t ready for it. They didn’t have the base. There wasn’t the participation numbers.

"The sport was not visible at the NCAA level like it had become in basketball."

About 200 players, including the stars of women’s hockey, vow to not play in any North American league next season — including the U.S. based NWHL — until they get an economically sustainable league with better pay.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has stated the league isn’t interested in running a women’s league while one still operates, which the NWHL intends to do in 2019-20 despite a depleted player pool.

Many female players active and retired, and some in the men’s hockey community including former NHL executive Brian Burke, say the NHL needs to step up where women’s hockey is concerned.

"In some capacity absolutely," said Liz Knox, a former Canadian Women’s Hockey League goaltender and the co-chair of its players’ association.

"Like any startup company, you need the leadership and mentorship of somebody who has done it and has done is successfully.

"The NHL is the most professional hockey league that we know of.

"Is that to say it’s their responsibility? No, but I certainly hope trying to grow a demographic and them trying to reach new audiences, it would be something they would consider."

The NBA launched the WNBA in 1997 and was its sole operator until 2002, when some teams were sold either to their NBA counterpart or an independent owner.

Five of 12 WNBA teams currently share an owner with an NBA team. A sixth, the Los Angeles Sparks, is co-owned by former Lakers president Magic Johnson.

"My observation is the NBA safety net is still vitally important," Ackerman said.

Ackerman doesn’t have an opinion now on whether the NHL should go where the NBA went with the women’s game.

But the NBA’s financial backing, expertise and manpower was "critical" to the WNBA’s survival in its infancy, she said.

"We could not have done it without it," Ackerman said.

"Other women’s pro leagues in basketball had been tried and all failed in part because they didn’t have the resources we had.

"We had with the NBA, an operation that knew how to run a basketball league.

"The league was the WNBA, so we went into the marketplace with that brand equity in basketball that we knew would mean something to business partners."

The average WNBA salary has been reported to be approximately US$75,000. Four Canadians, including New York Liberty guard Kia Nurse, are playing in the league this season.

Annual salaries in the defunct CWHL that shuttered May 1 ranged between $2,000 and $10,000.

The NWHL started off paying between $10,000 and $26,000, but slashed payment by up to half in its second season.

The WNBA announced a 40-game television deal with CBS this spring. Other games will be carried by NBA TV, ESPN and Twitter.

But the women’s league loses about $10 million annually, NBA commissioner Adam Silver told The Associated Press last year.

The NBA remains committed to finding a way to bring the league to economic sustainability, he said.

"The thinking was what’s good for women’s basketball is good for basketball and what’s good for basketball is good for the NBA," Ackerman said.

"I think the same reasoning could apply to the NHL. What’s good for women’s hockey is good for hockey and what’s good for hockey would be good for the NHL. They would have to adopt that line of thinking or not.

"I think the scale isn’t there so if they were involved, they would have to be doing it for reasons other than making money. They’d have to come up with other reasons."

The NBA had incentives to start a women’s pro league in 1997 that the NHL doesn’t.

The WNBA being a summer league gave the NBA a basketball property to put in otherwise empty arenas.

The popularity and television visibility of NCAA Division 1 women’s basketball was a market the NBA could tap into and expand.

There were 324 Division 1 women’s basketball teams in 2001, compared to 40 schools with Division 1 women’s hockey teams today.

The women’s hockey Frozen Four championship is overshadowed by the start of the men’s and women’s basketball championship scheduled on the same weekend.

"We launched the WNBA on the backs of women’s college basketball," Ackerman said. "I think women’s college hockey is not helping in ways that it could because it’s just not visible enough."

There were more high school girls playing basketball in the United States in 1997 — 454,006 according to the National Federation of State High School Associations — than there are currently women playing hockey in the world.

Between 2007 and 2018, the number of registered female players in the world increased from 153,665 to 205,674, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Well over half — 160,000 — are Canadian and American.

"Women’s hockey is not as far along as girl’s and women’s basketball was when the WNBA launched," Ackerman said.

"You’ve got the national team, you’ve got the Olympics, you’ve got the IIHF world championship. Structurally there’s many similarities, but I think the difference is the reach of the game isn’t the same scale.

"That has implications for the potential audience if you were going to try to do something significant at the pro level. It’s completely driven by market."

She also believes the women currently flexing their collective power in hockey shouldn’t feel deterred.

"Their efforts will be critical to building the foundation for the players of tomorrow," Ackerman said. "My only advice to them would be to keep doing what they’re doing.

"They’ve got to convince whoever is capitalizing it that their product is worth supporting. At the end of the day, pro leagues exist or not because of interest by fans.

"How much fan interest is there? If there’s enough fans that support it, then the sponsors will come, the networks will support it and the owners will be willing to spend money."

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