NCAA BK

Forgrave: Big East, Ackerman taking long-term approach

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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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The New Year’s Eve party that Val Ackerman is hosting this year might be one of the more ambitious New Year’s Eve parties ever: five college basketball games, five different locations, all nationally televised for a conference that a year ago was just a figment of seven schools’ imagination.

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The bash will be a coming-out party both for Ackerman and for the newly reconstituted Big East Conference, which she was chosen to lead over the summer. So what in the world makes her think it’ll work – not just the New Year’s Eve hoops marathon on FOX Sports 1 but the new Big East Conference in general, a basketball-centered athletic conference in a football-dominated world?

“Because I believe in basketball so deeply,” Ackerman told me over the holidays, when she was enjoying her first few days off since being hired as the Big East commissioner July 1. “Basketball is sort of America’s game. It’s a global game, and it’s America’s game. Our schools are in a different spot because they don’t have football revenue, but given the power and reach of basketball we can still be a powerhouse conference even without football.”

When Ackerman points out she’s seen as many facets of the sport of basketball as just about anyone, she’s not blowing smoke. Like the Big East is a conference centered on basketball, Ackerman’s life has been centered on the sport. She’s long been a hoops pioneer, all the way back to when she was the first women’s basketball scholarship player at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s after Title IX came into being. She played a season of pro ball in France and got her law degree from one of the most historic basketball schools in the country, UCLA. She went to work for NBA commissioner David Stern in the 1980s, serving in roles as varied as staff attorney and vice president for business affairs, until Stern asked her to start another new venture that might have been even more ambitious than launching a basketball-centered college athletic conference: an American women’s professional basketball league.

At the beginning of her nine years as founding commissioner of the WNBA – before she served as the first female president of USA Basketball, before she became the US delegate to FIBA, the sport’s international governing body – Ackerman had to deal with start-up components similar to the ones she is handling with the new Big East. There was finding a logo. There was getting the right letterhead. There was determining which cities would have teams, what the uniforms would look like, even what color the ball itself would be.

“But with the WNBA we were building a new brand,” Ackerman said. “It was really a sub-brand and included the initials ‘NBA.’ It was always going to be called the WNBA or nothing. There was a connotation there of major-league status. But that said, we were really creating something new. The Big East is not a new name, not a new brand. We’re basically relaunching an older brand.”

Since she started as the new Big East’s commissioner on July 1, it’s been a whirlwind. First were the hundreds of resumes that landed in her lap; she didn’t have a human resources department, so Ackerman had to go through each of them on her own. She hired a dozen people. She scouted for office space in midtown Manhattan. She worked with the finance people from Georgetown, who’d been running the fledgling conference’s books before Ackerman came on board, and worked with other school representatives on setting up conference championships for fall sports.

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With basketball season looming, the number of trains-run-on-time details was overwhelming: creating a website, a payroll system and an employee benefits plan – the on-the-fly the sort of stuff that must be done when starting a business from scratch.

“It’s been exhilarating but exhausting,” Ackerman told me.

Why does Ackerman think the new Big East can still be considered a major American college athletic conference, even without football? First and foremost is that basketball is a sport in which the smaller private schools that make up the Big East can make a mark. It’s not nearly as expensive of a sport to run as football. With a good coach and a handful of top players, any school can be competitive in basketball. Furthermore, the Big East’s well-established brand of rough-and-tumble basketball is a brand that sells.

I have argued that dynamic helps make the new Big East perhaps the deepest conference in the nation – and the conference with the most parity – in its very first season. It might be a hard concept to grasp, considering the Big East has only one team currently ranked in the AP top 25 (Villanova). But look at the KenPom.com team rankings, which may be the most accurate way to measure a team’s standing this early in the season. Sixty-eight teams will be invited to the NCAA tournament. Eight of the 10 Big East teams are ranked in the top 68 of the KenPom rankings. Of the five major conferences, only the ACC has more teams in the top 68 on KenPom.com than the Big East. The ACC has nine teams in the top 68 – but that’s with 15 total teams in the conference.

The 12-team Big Ten has eight. The 10-team Big 12 has seven. The 12-team Pac-12 has seven. (A more interesting comparison might be the American Athletic Conference, the 10-team league that includes five teams from the former Big East, has five teams in KenPom.com’s top 68.)

Sure, it’s imperfect pseudo-science. Because of the way the NCAA tournament is selected, the top 68 teams in any set of rankings won’t be the 68 selected for the tournament. So obviously the new Big East won’t be sending eight teams to the NCAA tournament. But it wouldn’t shock me to see six Big East teams make March Madness and I’d be surprised if it’s fewer than five.

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I asked Ackerman if she had a number in her head. How many Big East teams will have to play in this year’s NCAA tournament to consider the league’s first season a success?

To have five would be great, she said; to have more than five would be great. But she was less focused on one number for March 2014 and more focused on years down the road. Instead, she spoke about how zeroing in on what these schools do well – basketball, of course, but also other Olympic sports and of course academics – can make the Big East a major athletic conference for the long term.

“Our schools can make a mark by being basketball-centric,” Ackerman told me. “It’s just a matter of priority. At some point you can’t be the best at everything. The group of schools I represent, many of them had never been in the football business. The old Big East took that turn and began to add schools and got in that business, and there came to be a divide in terms of priorities. These seven schools plus the new three was probably just a recalibration in restoring the earlier sense of priorities, back to what it set out to do 35 years ago.”

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

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