The Year Of Women In Sports -- Where Do We Go From Here?

Between the World Cup-champion U.S. women's soccer team, Ronda Rousey and Serena-Slam-Winning Williams, it really has been the year of the woman. Which is wonderful -- but I've been a sportswriter long enough to know that's not enough to fundamentally change the way women in sports are advanced and paid.

Real change doesn't just spring from these moments, no matter how loud or sustained the cheers. It comes from parents buying season tickets to a new league, from sponsors buying into women's sports and paying female athletes, from having women behind the scenes making decisions and opening doors.

In 1996, American women won Olympic gold in gymnastics, softball, basketball and soccer in Atlanta. It was another year of the woman. The WNBA was formed, and its first game was played a year later. In 1999, the women's soccer team filled the Rose Bowl and won the World Cup, spawning a professional soccer league. There was tangible optimism at the time -- surely a new era for women's sports was on the horizon.

But it wasn't exactly a happily ever after for professional women athletes. The WNBA still has to fight for recognition, even as the best athletes in the game play in NBA arenas each summer. The National Women's Soccer League is trying to capitalize on the continued success of a new generation of World Cup winners after its predecessor, Women's Professional Soccer, folded in 2012. The National Women's Hockey League has had some growing pains and questions in its inaugural year.

So, there is caution. How many dollars have stayed in corporate pockets as a result of leagues' early struggles? Yet, that shouldn't poison the moment in front of us. Here is why I am optimistic for sustained momentum in 2016:

• The WTA is 41 years old and Williams is playing better than she ever has. The tour provides a model for all future women's leagues, even if its success hasn't been completely replicated.

• Abby Wambach won a World Cup and vowed in her retirement to do everything she can to fight for equity on the athletic stage. She's a powerhouse, and perhaps the next generation's Billie Jean King.

• Rousey and Holly Holm will provide a sequel to their record-breaking fight. The rematch will likely shatter the original's record. As Holm and Rousey choose fights beyond the rematch with women like Miesha Tate, it will deepen the field in women's MMA, and that has been a long time coming.

As much as these feats on the field bode well for the interest in women's sports, there are less visible, but just as important, moves taking place in professional front offices:

• The NFL hired and promoted a number of women in the past year, and not just for ceremonial purposes. The league named former Joe Biden attorney Cynthia Hogan a vice president of public policy, hired former prosecutor Lisa Friel to conduct investigations, and promoted Anna Isaacson to VP of social responsibility. Michele Roberts continues to be a powerful leader of the NBA players' union.

• For true change to occur, women need to have authority. Becky Hammon has that in the NBA as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs. Kim Ng has a prominent role in the MLB front office. Jen Welter completed a coaching internship with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals and Sarah Thomas is an NFL referee. These women are creating a pipeline. Here's the thing: The professional men they interact with seem to be handling it just fine.

• More women are taking control of teams, from Jeanie Buss at the Los Angeles Lakers to Charlotte Jones Anderson at the Dallas Cowboys. Even though the Cowboys decided to hire Greg Hardy, Jones Anderson is playing a larger role in the NFL, both internally and as a member of the NFL's conduct committee. Buffalo's Kim Pegula was added to the NFL's foundation committee. This week, Johnette Howard gave us this excellent profile of Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford, and notes when the 90-year-old Ford took the reins, she elevated her daughters to equal status with her son in terms of team succession.

There are more women like these -- just take a look at espnW's IMPACT25.

Sarah Spain, Kate Fagan and I discussed a lot of these women, and this era, during our espnW "Year of the Woman" radio show. Is this the moment it all changes for women in sports? I'm not sure that's how it happens.

But if 2016 comes to a close and women are making a little more money and have a few more key roles around professional leagues, if you hear more women on television and radio analyzing the games you're watching, then that incremental progress is its own success.

Other things on my mind as 2015 comes to a close:

Of course the NFL has to investigate Peyton Manning after an Al Jazeera investigative report said his wife received HGH shipments, even though questions about the report have been raised. It drew a dotted line to Manning without having solid sourcing that Manning was taking the substance (the report's single source later recanted).

Unfortunately, readers can discount a story that could have revealed something about PED use in the NFL, which has largely gotten a pass despite having the biggest, fastest athletes in professional American sports.

As Major League Baseball investigates Aroldis Chapman for domestic violence, the Yankees pick him up on the cheap. Baseball hasn't concluded its investigation, but the police report details that the local authorities declined to arrest Chapman despite an allegation he fired a gun in his garage while his former girlfriend hid in the backyard.

The Tamir Rice case should scare the hell out of everyone. A boy lost his life over a mistake in judgment and there will be no consequence. It's heartbreaking.

This Salon piece is an interesting look at homophobia and the NFL through the lens of slurs reportedly hurled at Odell Beckham Jr.

This column is about stuff that annoys me, but there are a lot of positive things happening in sports, too. I just leave that to other columnists. With that in mind ... Happy New Year!

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