With women from the United States and Canada putting on a thrilling show in Thursday's gold medal spotlight, it seems natural to ask the question: Might we ever see a women's pro hockey league in North America?
International competition, after all, has proved a natural springboard for larger endeavors. The WNBA used the 1996 Olympics as a pseudo-launching pad while the late Women's United Soccer Association was a product of the intense popularity the 1999 U.S. World Cup team achieved.
The creation of a "WNHL," however, remains a non-starter with Gary Bettman, who had plans to attend Canada's 3-2 overtime win over the the United States on Thursday. The NHL commissioner has been asked about the possibility of pro women's hockey a few times this past week and his responses haven't left much room for optimism.
In short: While women's hockey in North America has been a relative success at the Olympic and collegiate levels, it doesn't yet have the sheer numbers of younger players that soccer and basketball can boast.
That's important for two reasons. The first is that you need numbers to stock a league full of quality teams. The second is that you need younger players and their families buying tickets and filling the seats once the puck is dropped. There are some college-level programs in the Northeast and Upper Midwest that already provide that entertainment option for young female hockey players.
"We actually had a consultant take a look at this for us," Bettman told Al Michaels Thursday on NBC Sports Network. "The overall development at women's hockey at the grassroots level through the college level isn't at the point where a pro league is viable."
The consultant Bettman refers to is Val Ackerman, who served as the WNBA's president for its first 10 years and is now the commissioner of the Big East. She'd know better than anyone about what it takes to get a women's professional league off the ground. While the WNBA has become a relative success with its core audience, it also required a big financial commitment from NBA commissioner David Stern and the league's owners to keep the league going through the lean times.
That type of support doesn't seem like something the NHL would want to handle or can even take on right now. After all, as the "fourth" team sport in the United States, it's still busy trying to grow its popularity among the casual fan.
It also has plenty of charity cases when it comes to some of its struggling franchises.
However, "we very much believe in the importance of the women's game," Bettman told Michaels. "It's going to take some more time, some more development. And, you know, we're still trying to grow men's hockey."
All of that said, the Olympic matchups between the United States and Canada have been good entertainment and one can totally tell the difference in quality since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998. There may not be a convincing business model for a women's pro hockey league right now, but the sport is definitely headed in the right direction.
What's more, it's a good thing the question about turning this into something more than a once-in-every-four-years spectacle is being asked. Every new venture, after all, has to start somewhere.
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