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Leadership in sports needs to see ‘more women at the table’: Big East Commissioner

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Val Ackerman, Commissioner of the Big East, joins Yahoo Finance’s Julie Hyman and Alexis Christoforous to discuss equality for women athletes.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: [INAUDIBLE]. We want to continue our conversation now with Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East. And commissioner, we touched on this a little bit in the prior segment. But you are one of just a handful of women in leadership roles in sports.

And if you look at some other stats, female agents for the Major League still represent less than 5% of all certified agents. Just 4% of all sports coverage features female athletes. From where you sit, why do you think that's the case?

VAL ACKERMAN: Well, it's the $64,000 question. I would say I've been in this business now for 32 years. And there's no question that progress has been made. I started out as a staff lawyer for the National Basketball Association. And there were almost no women who were working in leader positions at sports organizations or networks or at large media companies.

And so, frankly, it warms my heart to see that a lot of progress has been made over the course of the last couple of decades. And I credit Title IX for that, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year in 2022 after its passage in 1972.

That said, there's no question there's still work to be done to make sure that the leader ranks of sports organizations match up with our participants. So whether that's in the pro leagues, at the collegiate sports level, at the national team level, at the IOC level-- we need to see more women at the table, because their perspectives on everything from sports operation to the marketing of sports to fans, which include a lot of women these days to matters relating to ethics and finance, and medicine, those voices just need to be heard.

So it's really-- it's, you know, sometimes things happen in a rush. And other times, things move at a snail's pace. And I think in women's sports, it's probably been a little bit of both.

But again, I think a day like today, International Women's Day, the annual celebration of what Title IX has done, and then just the continuing great performances by female athletes bring home that women deserve to be in the sports world in a major way. And it really is my hope that in the months and years and decades to come, we'll see the kind of progress that folks who care about equity are really looking for.

JULIE HYMAN: And so to that point, what's the one thing you think your industry can do today to help close that gap that we're talking about?

VAL ACKERMAN: I think, really, the focus for someone like me is on that leaderboard piece. I think when you talk about the connection between women and sports, it's very real. A lot of women play sports. A lot of girls play sports. Women are important consumers of sports be they women's leagues or men's leagues.

We're starting to see some traction now with women's pro leagues, like the WNBA, National Women's Soccer League. Women's tennis has always been a bit of a holy grail for me. You know, women's college sports are significant. We've got a quarter of a million girls who are playing college sports every year. And that's amazing and important.

But for me, that leader piece really is kind of on the to-do list here. Just to make sure, more women have an opportunity to lead sports organizations. And the hiring pipelines are robust that young women see a chance to advance in their careers.

So mentorship is critically important-- getting women the training they need, the skills they need in order to take that leader chair. And so that requires a broad-based knowledge of all the different elements that go into a sports operation.

And so I think it's really not one thing. It's a mix of things that have to be done again in order to prime women to take over those jobs. And then when they get there, they have to be successful because success breeds success, as everyone likes to say.

So it's a little by little process. And I know as far as I'm concerned, we've got some great women involved already. And I'm optimistic. I think we're going to see some real gains in the years ahead.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: To quote one of the tennis greats, Billie Jean King said "Sports are a microcosm of society." How true that is. Before we let you go, Commissioner, I would like to get your thoughts on this. As more D1 schools start to compensate their athletes-- start to pay their athletes-- how should they and pro sports, for that matter, think about being equitable when it comes to compensating athletes for the job that they're doing? Should that be contingent on the revenue that a particular sport brings in regardless of a person's gender?

VAL ACKERMAN: Well, the good news there is that there will be some opened up, and I know it will happen. Income opportunities for our athletes-- once the NCA's a name image and likeness rules gets squared away.

I co-chaired a working group that put together a package of recommendations to the NCA board of governors. Now, the details have been worked out over the last several months with the NCA's rules-making body. There's a lot of complexities associated with this. But I'm very confident that NIL in college sports will become a reality. And that will open up an income opportunity.

Now, the money's be coming in from third parties and not from the schools. But nonetheless, I think there will be some important benefits that will be accruing to student athletes be they men's, women's Olympic sport athletes, football players, basketball players, et cetera.

And so I think that it's time for that to happen. And that will afford women's athletes, I think, an opportunity to really-- to benefit from this. The schools will make sure that these opportunities are equitably-- athletes can prepare for them through the training that they'll get to responsibly exercise their NIL responsibilities.

And so that will factor into the gender equity equation there. But nonetheless, that'll be a big development in NIL. And hopefully that'll be able to go into effect. My hope would be within hopefully by next academic year would be a goal here, but certainly an important development for college sports writ large.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: For sure. Commissioner Val Ackerman, thanks so much. We know you've got a very busy week. Best of luck to you this week and with the upcoming March Madness.

VAL ACKERMAN: Very good. Thanks so much for having me.