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Billie Jean’s real ‘Battle of the Sexes’

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in HR Management,Human Resources

Many people associate Billie Jean King with the overhyped “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match she won in 1973 against Bobby Riggs, who’d proclaimed himself the world’s biggest “male chauvinist pig.”

What most people don’t realize is that, in an era when women athletes were treated like ornaments or freaks, King almost single-handedly forced the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) and tennis promoters to pay them on a par with their male counterparts.

With eight other pros and Gladys Heldman, the feisty editor of World Tennis magazine, King overcame:
  • Intense disparagement. Male pros said, among other things, that they didn’t want to give up money just for “girls” to play, that women players were ugly and that they’d be happier as homemakers.

  • Threats and intimidation. The night before the first Virginia Slims tournament for female professionals, the USTA told King that any player who participated would be suspended indefinitely from USTA play … including the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

  • The perception that they had something to lose. Discussing whether they should sit out USTA events to force the association’s hand, the women tried to define “reasonable” prize money.
Then, King said this:

“What do we have to lose? What do we have now? We have fewer and fewer places to play. When we do play with the men, it’s a 12-to-1 ratio of prize money even though we’re playing in front of a packed house. So, you guys think they’re really giving us something? Me, personally, I think they’re giving us absolutely NOTH-ING. I think we have nothing to lose.”

When the nine women voted to play on the Virginia Slims circuit despite USTA opposition, women’s professional tennis—and the entire women’s sports industry—was born.

By the time King played Chris Evert a year later at the U.S. Open, the Slims tour had grown to seven cities and $305,000 in purses. By the time Martina Navratilova retired from singles play in 1994, she and Evert together had won $30 million in prize money alone.

— Adapted from The Rivals, Johnette Howard, Broadway Books.

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