Excitement spurs females of all ages
The interest is always fleeting
In 1996, American women picked up a slew of gold medals in Atlanta. The women's basketball, softball, gymnastics and soccer teams all won gold, and more than one professional league was launched as a result.
Did they all make it? No, but progress when it comes to women's sports shouldn't be defined by permanent success in one specific arena.
Why haven't women's professional leagues found more sustained success? That's not really an Olympics issue. The NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB didn't spring from the Olympic format, either.
Some people say there just isn't any interest in women's sports, but that's a notion that the Olympics actually disproves every four years, even if it can't predicate a year-round interest in an individual pro league.
The Olympic movement -- with images of women like speedskater Bonnie Blair, swimmer Dara Torres, and figure skaters from Peggy Fleming to Sarah Hughes -- has helped elite female athletes earn a living in their sports for decades. Whether it's training grants through the U.S. team, or the increasing number of sponsorships over the years, the Olympic movement has said loudly that it values women's participation in athletics.
When it comes to the medal count, the gold medals that women win are just as valuable as the ones won by their male peers. The Olympic movement has sparked opportunities for women and girls all the way down the chain, to youth soccer and tee ball. There has been a "why" for those little girls, long before the dangers of obesity were fully appreciated and exercise became an end in and of itself.
The fact that the Olympics come around every four years for each sport is an inherent limitation. But that's a limitation that both men and women have to cope with. Lolo Jones is one who has tried to make more of a career out of the games by picking one summer and one winter sport to focus on.
The Olympic model probably works best for women like tennis players Serena Williams and Steffi Graf, who enhanced their careers with Olympic gold.
In the meantime, live from Sochi, it's the U.S. women's ice hockey team.
Whatever momentum and excitement the Olympics creates around women's sports seems to be gone by the time everyone's planes land back in their home countries.
There is no debating that during this one month -- whether it's the Summer or Winter Olympics -- people around the world care about the performance and results of female athletes as much, or at least nearly as much, as they do about the results of male athletes. But I'm starting to come to the realization that this isn't momentum, this isn't an energy to be harnessed going forward, spilling outward like a tidal wave. No, this excitement essentially happens in a vacuum.
Once the Olympics ends, the interest and excitement in those women's sports end, too. There might be a slight trickle downward, but certainly not enough to launch women's professional leagues. Which is something we've tried doing -- many times.
Multiple women's professional leagues have been introduced in the wake of the Olympics (in sports like softball, soccer and basketball), all in an attempt to capitalize on the interest and exposure the Olympics generates. The thinking seems to go, "Look at all of the people in the stands! Look at all of the media coverage! People do care about women's sports!"
And yet only one of those leagues -- the WNBA -- hasn't folded. Realistically, you could argue that the WNBA has survived not because of its Olympic launching pad, but because in its weakest moments, when other women's leagues just couldn't find the resources to stay afloat, the WNBA has been able to lean on its affiliation and connection with the NBA. Look no further than the recent sale of the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks to former NBA star Magic Johnson, a partnership likely made possible because of the close connection between the two leagues.
The energy around female athletes at the Olympics is a breath of fresh air. It feels good seeing women recognized as equals to their male counterparts. But what doesn't help women's sports in the years between the Olympics is the belief that this energy can be used to jumpstart professional leagues. What ends up happening is leagues falter and stall, eventually folding, which looks good for nobody.
I believe we will find a working model for women's pro sports; it just shouldn't be solely "Capitalize on Olympic momentum."
All the same, I can't wait to watch the U.S. women's ice hockey team.