The Woman At Center Court

It won't be a layup for Val Ackerman, new WNBA prez

As a small forward on the women's basketball team at the University of Virginia in the 1970s, Valerie B. Ackerman racked up some 1,500 career points. But the 5-foot, 9 1/2-inch player also developed a reputation for physical play. Her style, Ackerman concedes, "generated a lot of heated discussion with the referees."

These days, Ackerman is again involved in heated discussions about basketball--but this time, she's in a business suit. On Aug. 7, Ackerman, 36, was named president of the Women's National Basketball Assn., which will launch next summer as an offshoot of the NBA.

Ackerman has her work cut out for her. To make the WNBA succeed, she needs to sign as many top players as possible before the rival American Basketball League lures them away. ABL co-founder Gary Cavalli says he has already signed nine U.S. Olympic team players. But several top names, including Sheryl Swoopes, plan to sign on with the WNBA.

Other attempts to launch female basketball leagues have failed--one as recently as 1991. But the WNBA has some key advantages. To begin with, the NBA is betting heavily on its sister league. When eight WNBA teams start up, NBA teams will be responsible for administration of the women's clubs.

THREE CHANNELS. Then there are the television deals. The WNBA's games will be aired three nights a week on national TV--one each on NBC, Lifetime, and ESPN--giving its players maximum exposure and endorsement potential. The ABL, in contrast, just has a deal with SportsChannel America.

The mere idea of regularly televised women's hoops marks a dramatic change from when Ackerman played. At the University of Virginia, she shared the first women's basketball scholarship that the school had ever awarded. As part of a European team after graduation, Ackerman began thinking that the U.S. needed a women's basketball league. She picked up a law degree at the University of California at Los Angeles and, following a stint at New York's Simpson, Thatcher & Bartlett, was hired by the NBA as a staff attorney.

Will fans used to slam-dunk men's games really stay interested in the WNBA? Ackerman thinks so. The Olympic Games, she says, "showcased our passing, shooting, and intensity." Turn on the TV next summer, she promises, and you may even see women slamming, too.

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