- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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LONDON -- As the U.S. women's basketball team dominated France in Saturday's gold-medal game to extend its Olympic winning streaks to five consecutive golds, 41 straight victories and a 16-year period of perfection, NBA commissioner David Stern sat perched at center court beaming like a proud parent.
"Terrific, wasn't it?" he gushed following the 86-50 win. "You just watched the best athletes in the world in their sport."
Although Stern is not the WNBA's commissioner, make no mistake: The league was his baby, carefully nurtured over a decade of research and planning. It was his vision and stubborn steadfastness that has kept the women's professional basketball league afloat.
The WNBA is finally close to an overall break-even point, although some individual franchises still lose money. Stern fended off critics in the league's infancy who claimed women's professional basketball would never stick with one word: patience.
"We [the NBA] had the incentive to do this because we think basketball fans are fans of great competition, and the women's potential and the potential of their fans is extraordinary," Stern said in a late-night phone interview Saturday. "We also always believed there was catching up to do. Men control the remote. But over time, given Title IX and the incredible amount of increase in team sports for women, we saw room for growth.
"Not that long ago, there were no sports for women. Girls had no choices. They became cheerleaders. That's obviously changed."
But has it changed enough? It is the age-old question following each Olympic Games, but these in particular.
U.S. women dominated in London, garnering 29 of the country's 44 gold medals through Saturday night. Plug the women into the medal standings all on their own, without the tallies of their male countrymen, and their gold-medal haul would have been the third best, trailing only the U.S. and China (after Sunday's action, they'd be tied for third with Great Britain).
Track and field star Allyson Felix, swimming sensation Missy Franklin and gymnastics individual all-around gold-medalist Gabby Douglas were the darlings, yet their specific sports are cyclical. The Olympics are their big moment, until the next Games.
Franklin isn't lamenting over a lack of a professional swimming league to extend her opportunities; she's just looking forward to finishing her senior year of high school and deciding whether (or not) college swimming makes sense.
But for two of America's team sports, the hope and expectation is their accomplishments in London will be a springboard to something more.
The women's soccer team stole headlines with a thrilling come-from-behind overtime win against Canada in the semifinals before a pulsating 2-1 win versus Japan in the gold-medal game played in front of 85,000 fans at Wembley Stadium.
Yet their commissioner wasn't perched at midfield cheering them on because they don't even have a commissioner. In fact, at the moment, they don't even have a league. The most recent version, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), folded amid a legal dispute with one of its rogue owners, Dan Borislow.
While the U.S. women's soccer team was in the throes of its gold-medal push, a new group announced it will begin playing in spring of 2013. Committed teams include the holdovers Boston Breakers, Chicago Red Stars and Sky Blue FC, a yet to be named team from Seattle, and four other franchises that are to be announced.
Abby Wambach, one of soccer's most familiar faces and redoubtable stars, believes this time will be different. The momentum of this Olympic run, she said, will carry forward.
"In my opinion, this is our chance to solidify a professional league in the U.S.," Wambach said. "We need to find the different cities, whether they are more soccer specific in the Northwest like Seattle and Portland, or cities that are more committed to doing it the right way. Obviously, we've learned from our mistakes."
And what are those mistakes?
"The biggest mistake is not having enough money," she said, "then you go down the line from there."
Wambach said expectations need to be tempered for soccer's next attempt at a women's league.
"We need to think about the league growing in a very slow fashion, which is how it's going to have to be, instead of investors coming in and thinking they're going to turn a profit right away," she said.
Stern said understanding that success won't come overnight is critical. Believing that it will happen eventually in the midst of difficult times is also paramount.
"I'm a big tennis fan," Stern said. "If you look at the growth of the women's game in tennis, it was painful. For 75 years, they went nowhere until Billie Jean King played Bobby Riggs in a stunt.
"That match was nothing, but it became the biggest thing in women's tennis. Before that, the biggest thing was when one of the contestants didn't wear something white at Wimbledon."
Women's soccer has its own polarizing figures, including goalkeeper Hope Solo, who is outspoken, edgy, talented and marketable. Solo posed nude for ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue, has a book coming out soon and is the soccer player who stands to benefit most financially from these Games.
Ask her about her future as a goalkeeper and her eyes grow dark.
"I can't sit and think about it because I do get a little angry," she said. "We fill Wembley Stadium with 85,000 people and you tell us there isn't enough interest? That seems a little dated. The major thing that makes me upset is we have all these great young players who come out of college with no place to go. They aren't quite good enough yet to play on the national team, but they could be in a couple of years, and the opportunities aren't there for them. How is that right?
"It's a matter of finding the right people who understand they are doing this knowing they are going to lose money."
The unique model of the NBA-WNBA partnership has given female players uncommon stability. Although Stern is a staunch supporter of the women's game, there were pragmatic reasons why it made sense to create the WNBA.
"We saw all sorts of benefits for our NBA teams," Stern said. "We were able to keep our building occupied year round. We were able to keep regional sports programming. We were able to offer basketball as a lower-price alternative for families.
"There were sound business reasons why we did this. That and Carol Blazejowski and [former WNBA commissioner] Val Ackerman threatening me if I didn't."
Women's soccer has contemplated forming some kind of small-scale partnership with MLS. It has learned from its first attempt at professional soccer, when it blew through close to $100 million in its first three seasons of the Women's United Soccer Association (WUSA). The plan then was to go big or go home.
In the end, it did both.
Alex Morgan is the Next Big Thing in soccer. The 23-year-old said she will look into playing in Europe to continue her career, but prefers to find a way to exhibit her skills without having to leave the country.
"We wanted to win this gold medal for everyone back home, for little girls like I was once, dreaming of playing for my country," Morgan said. "I want people to be able to watch us play every weekend. It is so important to grow the game."
Wambach frets an exodus to Europe will damage the continuity of the national team. "It will hurt us," she predicted. "Maybe not right away, but definitely down the line."
At 32, Wambach knows it's unlikely she will reap the benefits of a stable professional soccer league in her lifetime.
"I can't wait for the day we can say, 'Investing in women's professional athletes isn't the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do,'" she said.
Stern believes that day will come, for basketball and soccer, although he concedes the pace for growth is, at times, excruciating. The WNBA is entering its 16th season, and without his unwavering support, it, too, could have folded years ago.
"I do believe there is a market for [female] athletes who play at the highest level," said Stern. "I just wish it was coming sooner."
The London Olympics were a benchmark for women, especially U.S. women. But what does that mean beyond the Games? For two team sports, the hope and expectation is their accomplishments in London will be a springboard to something more.