The BIG EAST tournament is heading to New York City as it always does, and what some people seem to forget is that the current construction of the BIG EAST is very different than it was more than 5 years ago, when the conference was realigned and it was on the verge of breaking up. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Louisville had left for the ACC and the BIG EAST was wondering whether it had lost its relevance.
Yet, the BIG EAST has survived under Commissioner Val Ackerman, who has served in such a role since 2013. I recently spoke with Ackerman about where she sees the conference now after its recovery and how she needed to be an entrepreneur to bring the BIG EAST back from life support.
Did the beginning of this job feel like you were taking over a startup?
Ackerman: Yes, in many ways. When the league re-configured in 2013, we had the benefit of 33 years of equity and history as a college basketball conference, but we were left with the job of completely re-creating infrastructure for the reconstituted organization. We had to hire staff, find office space, establish bank accounts, acquire insurance, create a website, set up e-mail, enact workplace policies and apply for not-for-profit status, for starters. We had a short runway to get it all done, and every day it felt like we were drinking out of a fire hose. Fortunately, we had terrific support from our ten member schools, and it all came together in the end.
Did you use anyone as a sounding board during that process?
Ackerman: Before I was hired, our Presidents hired Dan Beebe, former commissioner of the Big 12, as a consultant to help keep the trains running, and he was a huge help to me and the conference. My first full-time employee was Joe D'Antonio, who had worked for the old BIG EAST and was well-known to our schools, and between him, me and Dan, we found a way to handle the basics in those first hectic months.
How important was it to develop a content platform that the league could own and integrate?
Ackerman: It's critical. We think telling the stories of our athletes and programs is one of our most important functions. After we got the league up and running, we started to lay the groundwork for a digital platform to supplement the coverage we're getting through our website and our long-term, national television agreement with Fox Sports. Behind the efforts of Rick Gentile and Ann Crandall on our staff, we created the BIG EAST Digital Network, which is distributed on the FOX Sports mobile app and serves as the outlet for over 200 streams annually of BIG EAST competitions. Last year, we also created a weekly basketball show called 'Shootaround," which we produce primarily from our offices and distribute on various digital platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and FOX Sports Go.
Balancing the geography of the league has been key ingredient for success. How has that plan worked out and how has it made the conference more flexible?
Ackerman: Our conference is called the "BIG EAST," but half of our schools are now squarely in the Midwest, and so we're conscious of the need to have a two-region strategy for operating and promotional purposes. We work hard to balance the locations of our championship venues and meetings between the two regions, including our basketball tournaments: our men's event is in its 36th year at Madison Square Garden, and we're at the start of a three-year deal to play our women's event at the newly-opened Wintrust Arena in Chicago.
What are the lessons you have learned from the first five years that will shape the next five?
Ackerman: First, the importance of having a core identity and set of values that you can use to prioritize day-to-day functions as well as strategic initiatives. Our brand is built on basketball success, academic excellence and student-athlete well-being, all enduring attributes that will serve as a framework in the next five years and beyond.
Next, the importance of teamwork. We wouldn't have gotten the league re-launched without an extraordinary group effort, and we'll need that collaborative spirit to maintain our relevance on the national landscape as we look to the future.
And third, the enduring appeal of the sport of basketball on our campuses and in our sports-mad culture. The game brings out incredible passion, and Villanova's national championship in 2016 really drove that home.