Val Ackerman Op-Ed: My roadmap for women's basketball
By Val Ackerman, commissioner of the Big East Conference
With the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup attracting unprecedented worldwide visibility and interest, the road has now been paved for other sports to do their part to increase opportunities for women on fields of play and in sport governance structures.
Given the extraordinary global popularity of soccer, Fifa remains uniquely positioned to build on the momentum unleashed in France and set a high bar as women and girls look to realise the many benefits that high-level sports participation can offer. But basketball, which can also tout broad reach, has a chance to make its own significant mark on gender, and I hope FIBA will embrace the leadership opportunity as its next governance cycle begins at the FIBA World Congress this week in China.
My career in basketball has spanned three decades, including associations with the NBA, WNBA, USA Basketball, FIBA and now men’s and women’s college basketball through my current role as the commissioner of the Big East Conference, a prominent member sports league of the NCAA.
As the US representative to the FIBA Central Board from 2006 to 2014, I had a chance to witness first-hand the important role that international sports federations can play in driving change through visionary leadership, funding commitments and comprehensive strategies as they look to expand the reach of sport to players and fans.
In my view, FIBA’s impressive modernisation efforts under the late Patrick Baumann, as secretary general, can only accelerate if more women are brought into basketball’s leadership ranks and participate in decisions critical to the future growth and health of the game worldwide.
So here’s a gender roadmap that I hope FIBA will consider as it looks to 2020 and beyond:
Make clear that women are an organisational priority To achieve real progress on gender, FIBA will need to show a heightened sense of urgency and declare publicly that the promotion and celebration of women in basketball are strategic priorities for the organisation. This will require an internal cultural shift, as FIBA, like many international federations, has historically had a male-dominated leadership structure that has resisted including women-focused initiatives as growth pillars.
The tone needs to be set at the top by current secretary general Andreas Zagklis and the next FIBA president and then embraced by leadership in each of the five zones if any kind of change is to happen.
Create a comprehensive strategic plan around gender equity A good starting point for change would be the launch by the next FIBA central board of a broad-based, long-range strategic planning exercise focused on the many ways that women connect with, and enrich, the game of basketball. The plan should avoid generalities and lay out concrete strategies and the resources that will be committed by the secretariat and the five zones over the next five to 10 years.
The planning process might best be facilitated by an outside consultant and/or global working group made up of experts from across various government, business and sport sectors. The plan should also be built around baseline data detailing the number of women who play and consume basketball worldwide, so that FIBA can work up reasonable bench marks and more precisely measure progress during the next one to three governance cycles.
Study the global competition calendar Most women’s professional club leagues globally are staged in the months of October through May, with the WNBA playing its season in the opposite time frame (i.e. the North American summer). With national team events (including the FIBA Women’s World Cup and the Olympics) shoehorned in between, the result is a fragmented landscape that leaves the top players with multiple team associations and heightened injury risks that compromise the overall competitive quality and brand identity of the women’s game.
FIBA is ideally positioned to conduct a holistic review of the global women’s calendar and to work with key stakeholders around the world to build national team visibility, help maximise economic opportunities for clubs, and ensure that player health is protected to the greatest extent possible.
Increase parity in competitions Watching the Fifa Women’s World Cup, I was struck by the uniformly high level of play and the noticeable uptick in parity on the playing field, the by-product of increased investments by many countries in women’s soccer development over the past decade.
The long-standing dominance of US women on the basketball court (highlighted by gold medals in 11 of the last 12 Olympic and World Cup tournaments) should be a natural incentive for FIBA to bring up the level of play by other national teams, mirroring the progress in international men’s basketball after the 1992 US men’s 'Dream Team' burst onto the scene in Barcelona. If compelling rivalries take hold and game outcomes are suspenseful, it’s more likely that the fan, media and sponsor support that all women’s basketball stakeholders desire will follow.
Include more women in key decision-making roles Despite broad participation in basketball by females worldwide, the number of women on FIBA’s key governing bodies and commissions at the world, zone and national levels has remained low. Having been one of just a handful of women in the room during my two terms on the central board, I hope FIBA will double down and bring more women into its halls of power, as female perspectives would only enrich the dialogue around topics like marketing, fan development, ethics, financial management, social responsibility and athlete health and well-being, among many others.
Like some federations, FIBA uses a quota system to ensure that each zone has one female delegate at the central board level, which historically has translated into overall board representation in the 20 per cent or lower range. The quota minimums need to continue, but FIBA should improve on those numbers and set a target of 30 per cent or more women on the central board beginning in 2019, with a goal of at least 40 per cent by 2023.
In addition, FIBA should increase the number of women serving on its executive committee, which drives the strategic direction of the organisation (this past cycle, only one women served on the committee, which is made up of twelve members). Finally, every FIBA commission should be re-assessed with an eye to achieving better gender balance this cycle and beyond.
To these ends, FIBA might consider creating a database with names of qualified candidates and setting up an orientation and/or mentoring programme to prepare female executives for future commission and central board service. Two good models to consider are the US State Department’s Global Sports Mentoring Program, which annually pairs 15 to 20 female sports executives from around the world with host sports organisations in the United States, resulting in valuable professional development and networking; and the programming devised for the annual convention of Women Leaders in College Sports, the leading professional organisation for women who work in American intercollegiate athletics.
Increase staffing and funding FIBA can increase its chances of moving the needle on gender by hiring dedicated staff in Geneva and at the zone offices to focus day in and day out on the many components of 'women in basketball', including player and coach development, officiating, branding, sponsorship sales, fan growth strategies and leadership training programmes.
FIBA should also consider allocating a healthy, fixed percentage of its annual budget to women’s initiatives, much like it invested heavily over the past decade in the House of Basketball, the Basketball Champions League, 3x3 basketball (now an Olympic discipline) and the new World Cup competition system. On this score, I hope FIBA leadership will focus less on immediate financial returns than on the myriad of long-term, tangible and intangible benefits a commitment to greater gender inclusion will bring to the sport.
Stimulate player input and impact Women’s soccer players, especially in the United States, have been highly assertive in voicing their demands for equitable treatment and for change in the way their sport is managed by Fifa and its national federations. Megan Rapinoe, who led USA to the gold medal at the Women’s World Cup in France, has been especially effective in using her platform to bring attention to equal pay and other forms of gender discrimination.
In 2017, a Muslim women’s basketball player, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, forcefully advocated for the removal of FIBA’s ban on headgear; other players should also take ownership and become more active in shaping the future direction of basketball worldwide. FIBA can help the cause by appointing a female player to the central board this cycle, as well as developing -- with broad player input -- a robust agenda specific to the needs of female players at the club and national team levels. There would also be much value in a strong, direct and regular line of communication between the secretariat and players and their advocates worldwide.
Lift the prestige of the FIBA Women’s World Cup Despite Team USA's commanding victory, last September’s FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in Tenerife in Spain was largely invisible back home, in sharp contrast to the Fifa tournament this past summer, which dominated the US sports media news cycle and remained a national news story for weeks after the tournament concluded.
FIBA should strive to learn what has made the women’s soccer’s championship so successful (beyond soccer’s baseline popularity) and consider adopting some of Fifa's marketing and event strategies. The site for the next FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup in 2022 has not yet been decided, and identifying a location that will combine strong organisational support and ease of travel for fans should be a top priority.
FIBA should also revive the women’s basketball summit that was held in Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic in 2010 and then discontinued, as the gathering would be a prime opportunity to gather key stakeholders, lay out a long-term vision and goals, and build camaraderie and excitement about everything women can do to help advance the game.
Encourage and rely on outside support As FIBA ramps up its efforts on gender, there may be room for the formation of an independent advisory board or think tank that would be housed outside of the organisation and recognised along the lines of the World Association of Basketball Coaches and the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation.
This group could conduct research, monitor trends, make policy recommendations, and identify best practices in women’s sports development, governance and brand building, and in that way assist FIBA as the organisation works to implement change from within on a parallel track.
The game of basketball has had a long and proud history. I hope its leaders around the world will fully and quickly grasp how important women will be to the future.
Val Ackerman is the commissioner of the Big East Conference. She was the founding president of the WNBA and is a past president of USA Basketball