It is a scene that speaks to the soul of sport - a boy on a dirt driveway, tossing a ball at a wooden basket nailed to the side of a barn. Or another youngster, endlessly working on his cross-over dribble on the hard asphalt, deep in the concrete canyons of the inner city. Practicing, practicing, practicing. From the legends of Bill Bradley to Larry Bird, from the recently retired Michael Jordan to legend-in-waiting Allen Iverson, the image is an indelible hallmark of American basketball.
Val Ackerman wants to add a new twist to this time-honored portrait. Ackerman, president of the WNBA - or Women's National Basketball Association - sees no reason why that determined youngster can't be a little girl. And Ackerman's league, fresh off it's third season, gives young girls every reason to dream the same dream boys have. The WNBA has actively marketed players - beginning with Sheryl Swoopes, Lisa Leslie and Rebecca Lobo, and more recently with Cynthia Cooper, Nikki McCray, Yolanda Griffith, Teresa Weatherspoon, Nykesha Sales and Chamique Holdsclaw - with the talent and personality that young girls can aspire to.
The WNBA, says Ackerman, send a message that "not only is it OK for women to play sports, but there's something about it to be celebrated."
"The adage that 'actions speak louder than words' comes into play," says Ackerman. "I have two daughters of my own, and I believe they look and see what these players are doing, and no one has to tell them that the players are role models. They see the players. And by watching them conduct themselves, seeing what they can do in terms of their particular skill, that alone sends the message that women can and should be doing these things.
"We know in general that athletes have the ability to be very influential on fans, especially young people. It's a fact of life in sports, and that's why it's important that the athletes understand their role," says Ackerman, a former college standout as a small forward for the University of Virginia. "The good news for us is that the players do understand their impact and have been tremendous ambassadors for women's sports and the WNBA. They really go the extra mile to sign the autographs, make the appearances, interact with the fans, make fans really feel like a part of things. That's one of the things that's made our league so special."
And why it's connecting with fans. The WNBA has enjoyed a growth spurt that would make any parent proud, with attendance jumping from 9,804 from its inaugural season in 1997 to 10,207 in 1999. And the league continues to expand into new markets, following their National Basketball Association model. From the original eight-team league, next year the WNBA will boast 16 teams, with four new franchises in Indianapolis, Miami, Portland and Seattle.
"We want to be the fifth major league," says Ackerman. "We see the big four out there - Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League - and we'd like to see a women's sport rise into that echelon. It won't happen tomorrow. We'll know we made it when people start talking about wanting to be the sixth major league. We think we have the ingredients, with our television and sponsorship and national reach and the quality of our league from a competitive stand-point. Growing media interest, fan support, etc., are the things you need to advance as a sports league. We think we have the makings of that, so that's ultimately our goal.
"For a league that's very new, we think we've distinguished ourselves. It'll be a long time before we become like the NBA, but I like this fact: It took the NBA 29 seasons to average 10,000 fans a game, and we did it in our second season. I think that kind of progress is very encouraging."
That progress ensures the continued success of the WNBA, which in turn allows the league to continue to have an impact on young girls and how they view the game, says Ackerman. Another is opportunity, the chance to dream. In many ways, the WNBA is a natural extension of Title IX, the landmark 1972 law designed to balance the playing fields between the intercollegiate athletic programs of men and women. Title IX gets deserved credit for opening doors and allowing girls to pursue their athletic careers in college. Title IX has also provided additional financial support for some girls to attend college.
"I would like to see women's team sports continue to develop," says Ackerman. "I think a lot of progress has been made with the advent of the WNBA, in terms of what that reflects about the support for team sports as opposed to individual sports - sports like figure skating, women's tennis, gymnastics. We have a new genre here.
"It was very encouraging to see the impact of women's soccer this past summer. It was interesting to see the women's ice hockey team in Nagano, Japan, do well and create a stir. Women's softball has it's own league in the southeast and seems to be making some strides. And we have another world platform next year with the Sidney Olympics, with all these teams competing and United States teams looming as favorites," she says. "I hope there will be leagues in sports other than basketball for women. I hope the college sports can continue to develop and continue to attract strong crowds and energize their colleges just like men's programs have done for years."
As a former player, the mother of two young girls and the president of a league that will feature 176 players next year, Ackerman is in a unique position to comment on the value of teamwork. Team sports, she says, provide lessons that are equally meaningful for girls and boys.
"My older daughter is on a soccer team now - I'm a soccer mom," says Ackerman with a laugh. "And hearing what I'm saying to her, instinctively, is interesting. She had her first game, she was nervous, and I'm telling her things like, 'Well, here's the deal: when you play on a team, you go as the team goes. If the team wins, you're happy. If the team loses, that's part of the game. If you play well and the team wins, that's the best feeling in the world. If you play well and the team loses, that's not a great feeling. If you play badly and the team wins, it's OK, because you won. And if you play badly and the team loses, that's the worst feeling of all.'
"It's all part of being on a team, all part of the spectrum of emotions. I remember, as a kid, going through that. It's really an enriching life experience that comes from being part of a team. I'm glad that my daughters are going to have the opportunity to part of different teams, I think that's going to contribute in very positive ways to their development as people."
Those lessons were never more evident than this past summer, when the WNBA's Houston Comets overcame the loss of their former point guard, Kim Perrot, to cancer to win their third straight championship.
"We have a dynasty, obviously, in Houston," says Ackerman. "In many respects it's been a plus. We have a very talented team there that's made it's mark, has made some history along the way, has really emerged as our glamour team, much like the Bulls of a few years back, or the Celtics or Lakers or Detroit dynasties of the NBA of the '80s.
"And it was an unbelievable personal story this year. It was just incredible. I don't think any team in sports has had to undergo that sort of emotional rollercoaster at that point in their season. A lot of credit goes to the team and organization for having the strength to get through that."
Ackerman is also encouraged by the changes in attitudes and equipment that allow girls to start playing basketball at an earlier age.
"Young girls need to be of a certain age in order to make basket at regulation height, but there's all sorts of ways to handicap it," she says. "We have an adjustable backboard that we can lower to seven feet, that didn't exist when I was a little girl. I never made a basket until I was 10, but now my kids at age four or six can make baskets. The equipment has caught up now, and there are ways for kids to get positive reinforcement at an early age."
Which means if you're looking for the future of the WNBA, you might take a second look at that little girl on the dirt driveway practicing her jump shot, or the youngster on the asphalt court as she takes it strong to the basket.
- 30 -