Battle of the Sexes: King & Riggs 1973 (Risking it All for Equality & Title IX)
A big deal in TV herstory went down on September 20, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome.
We at Advanced TV Herstory are not asking you to cause a family kerfuffle at Thanksgiving. But if you wanted to… and talking about politics and religion is verboten… here’s a little background that’ll put you on a level playing field with, well, the older generation of women.
Who knows what kind of answer you’ll get when you ask the question, “So what did you think of the Battle of the Sexes?”
If you like your holidays quiet, then enjoy this installment merely for its educational value.
Or, think of it as something you should know about the power of TV, assessing risk and maintaining composure.
To understand the significance of the Battle of the Sexes is to realize that big events demand story telling in order to stay alive. If no one talks about it, how do we really know the impact… even 42 years later?
The Battle of the Sexes “was the most watched, best-attended tennis match in history.” It was a spectacle in many respects and proved to the be turning point in the Women’s Movement when Billie Jean King transformed into “Mother Freedom.”
She was a woman unlike all the others associated with the movement, most notably Gloria Steinem. Billie Jean had no connections to Vietnam protests or bra burnings.
The airing of the Battle of the Sexes placed Billie Jean King at a pulpit for equality she would use time and again, literally through every decade ‘til now. Whether that was fighting to retain the core of Title IX, which has come under attack by higher education as well as policymakers or advocating for equal pay for professional women athletes.
Here’s the story. Not a history of woman’s tennis, as much as the factors that led up to a televised sports spectacle
Actually, Billie Jean King was the second woman tennis player Bobby Riggs cajoled into playing him on national TV. It didn’t turn out well for Team Woman.
Margaret Court, a reigning tennis star had traditional upbringing and lived a traditional, conservative life, married with a child. She differed in opinion with Billie Jean about equity issues in women’s tennis and did not apply herself to the commercial side of women’s athletics – spending time with fans and sponsors.
Bobby Riggs had been a big name at Wimbledon in 1939, having risen up through the men’s tennis ranks as a bit of an outcast. His size, his look, his athletic awkwardness was not embraced by the most influential tennis promoters of the day. Riggs found tennis to be and intellectual challenge as much as physical. It also fit nicely with his penchant for gambling.
In her book A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis Match that Leveled the Game, by Crown Publishing, New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts does a great job of describing the lengths Riggs would go to to hustle people, bet on events and come across as a total huckster.
In the spring of 1973, well past 50 years old and two decades past his tennis prime, Riggs decided to attempt a Big Event Comeback. It was spurred in part by his wanting to redirect a claim for bigger winnings for women over to bigger winnings for senior men of the tennis circuit. As Roberts documents throughout the book, he genuinely believed he was a better tennis player than any woman.
So when Riggs and his promoters dangled in front of Margaret Court, she took the bait, having given little thought, according to King’s recount in the book, to the larger context of women’s athletics, the women’s movement and what a loss would mean.
“I’ve beaten better men than Bobby in practice matches,” Court announced to reporters. (p.18)
For women from earlier generations, the accepted sports available to them were golf and tennis. More than ever, TVs were not only commonplace in the homes of America’s baby boom teenagers, they were also in color. Technology was making it possible to broadcast games live, or at least package them for a taped broadcast.
Bobby trained seriously, playing daily with his son, but also living a pretty unhealthy lifestyle. In the days and weeks leading up to this first big match, which would take place on Mother’s Day, Riggs established a patter of taunting, trash-talk that not only focused on his opponent, but women athletes and women as a gender.
King knew upon learning of the match that Court was nowhere near the inner circle of feminism or promotion. She had no context for Riggs’ antics. For a whole host of reasons including Riggs’ having successfully psyched out Margaret Court, who some could easily be thrown, mentally, during a game, the entire match lasted 57 minutes.
On national TV on Mother’s Day, Riggs handed Court a bouquet of flowers and told her she was a beautiful mother. She curtsied. Less than an hour later, Riggs had trounced Margaret Court in 2 sets. From the moment after he beat Court, Riggs was putting out the public call to Billie Jean King for a match.
Billie Jean King, with her own healthy ego and place in the Women’s Movement and a husband who was becoming a consummate promoter, realized the only thing she could do was take him on.
BJKing Press conference
While Riggs’ trash talking and media antics got the better of Margaret Court, King got a handle on her game and game plan for her off-court and on-court preparation. In a sense, this was something she knew had been in her path her entire life. As Roberts accounts in her book, Billie told her mother at the age of 5 that she was “going to do something great with [her] life.”
Her number had just been called by a 55 year old loud-mouth.
Riggs talks trash
Billie’s rise through the tennis ranks started in her teen years. She had paid her dues to get to where she was, world-ranked. She had played her first match at Wimbledon in 1961. By 1973, Billie Jean King was a tested veteran of the road, media and industry. The business end of tournaments, as they were open to amateurs and professionals had changed in the last 5 years. All of this activity was coming at a time when women were taking their rightful place in athletics and physical fitness, all because of Title IX.
Billie Jean King’s acceptance of the match with Riggs meant reclaiming the progress and rightful place highly trained women athletes held across all sorts of sports. It would also serve to put women tennis players on more equal footing for pay, venues, product endorsements, tournament sponsorships and media exposure. There was everything to gain and everything to lose.
At this point in her career, she had attained much of what was available. And since 1970, the presence of teen superstar Chris Evert was changing the exposure equation and the game itself. Billie Jean’s role in the Women’s Movement was becoming one of veteran with a voice.
Pre-match press conference
So in 1973, with Court’s loss to Riggs in May, Billie Jean waited until June to give Riggs the answer he sought. She was scheduled to be at Wimbledon in July, so promoters set the date for September. This Wimbledon ultimately featured Billie Jean King against Chris Evert in the final.
As Roberts describes the deal, “The contract called for a best-of-five sets match, at Billie’s request and at ABC’s need to fill time, with a $100,000 winner-take-all purse, plus $150,000 in ancillary rights.
There were no grand assurances Billie Jean King would win. In fact, her peers on the tennis circuit questioned her ability to beat Riggs. The betting world was posting all sorts of odds, generally in Riggs’ favor.
Effect on people
It’s hard today to imagine an athlete as crucial to a sport and movement as Billie Jean was. There were more women’s voices her age in music and Hollywood. By virtue of age and experience, she was at the top, with few peers. Women’s tennis and golf today has broadened its base internationally. Venus and Serena are important. They sell tickets and merchandise when they are in a tournament, but it won’t be cancelled without them.
Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, Riggs did not maintain his practice and conditioning regimen for his match with King, as he had done for Court. He focused on promotions and making the most of endorsement opportunities that would come at the match and after he won. The hustle seemed to become his number one priority.
Billie Jean knew this would be an historic day. She planned details of her schedule and diet, her hair, tennis dress and shoes. She also battled for three weeks to ensure that an aging tennis star, Jack Kramer, who was heavily biased toward Bobby Riggs, would not be part of the on-air commentary team.
Like the Super Bowl
Commentators, athletes and celebrities all had some airtime to weigh in with who they thought would win. The majority favored Riggs. With production quality worthy of a Super Bowl half-time, King and Riggs camped it up as they entered the Astrodome. King was carried in on a litter, like Cleopatra, Riggs was pulled in in a rickshaw.
The match was more than Riggs ever expected. King’s training and conditioning paid off. Her attention to maintaining an even mental keel kept her focused while his antics and frustrations posed distractions. She faltered occasionally, only to regain her footing and overpower him in every aspect of the game. Even Howard Cosell, who had begun the broadcast quite dismissive of her tennis skills and prowess, articulated respect for Billie Jean King increasingly as the match wore on.
The final score in the best-of-five was 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Riggs wasn’t close in any of the sets.
King maintained her class after the win and went on to become one of the highest profile women heroes of the 20th century.
Riggs’ career as a tennis player and hustler dried up after the match. Chris Evert had no interest in playing him at a third circus.
At least in the world of tennis, one woman had fought the battle. And won.
About social change
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Roberts, Selena (2005). A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs and the Tennis match that leveled the game. NY: Crown Publishing.
Audio pulled from video available on YouTube by Graham Bensinger. Learn more about Graham’s work interviewing important people at Grahambensinger.com.
Also, we pulled a little audio of the Cosell commentary from the audio compilation of historic sporting events narrated by Bob Costas called And the Crowd Goes Wild.