HOUSTON — Bobby Riggs’ next big spectacle may be a leap off Suicide Bridge in Pasadena, California, while Billie Jean King is just happy to have made a spectacle of the 55-year-old hustler and to have won $200,000 to boot.
Screaming, delirious womens-libbers lit up more brightly than the rocket-shooting Astrodome scoreboard Thursday night when Mrs. King showed the devastating swiftness that won her five Wimbledon titles in defeating self-proclaimed male chauvinist Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in the internationally televised battle of the sexes tennis extravaganza.
— Associated Press account of the Sept. 20, 1973 match.
We’ve come a long way, baby.
All of us.
Athletes. Fans. Journalists.
But, oh my, do we have a long way to go.
As we mark the 44th anniversary of the landmark tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, along with Friday’s release of the movie “Battle of the Sexes ,” it seems only fitting that we evaluate the state of women’s athletics.
Clearly, there are far more opportunities for girls and young women to pursue their sporting dreams, much of it thanks to the Title IX law that was enacted just 15 months before the King-Riggs melodrama. It guarantees equal access to any program or activity receiving federal dollars, which pretty much covers all major college athletic programs.
In terms of participation by female athletes, Title IX has been an undeniable success.
But that’s only through the college level.
When it comes to making a living through sports — not getting rich, mind you, just a living wage — the opportunities are far more limited for a woman than a man.
There are some successes, of course, particularly in the individual sports such as tennis and golf. But when it comes to female team sports, especially in the United States, there just aren’t any success stories. Not even the WNBA, the women’s league with the most staying power and probably the only one that most die-hard sports fans are even aware of, can’t be classified as a huge leap forward.
Even now, more than two decades after its founding, it remains a league that is played for a few months in the summers — outside of the traditional basketball season — for pay that remains so low most players earn the bulk of their incomes playing overseas the rest of the year. The WNBA has only 12 teams, just four more than when it started in 1996, and television ratings are still microscopic.
Other than that, there are a handful of female leagues that might as well be part of the witness protection program — Anyone heard of the National Women’s Hockey League? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? — and a lengthier list of those that went under.
“It’s certainly not for a lack of trying,” said Amy Backus, athletic director at Case Western Reserve University and a member of the NCAA task force on gender equity. “I really thought after the soccer World Cup (in 1999) that perhaps that would be a jolt to spark enough interest in keeping a soccer leader viable. But we’re just not at the point, even all these years, that people find entertainment value in women’s sports. It is very disappointing. Why is it that Europe has embraced women’s basketball and some other sports, but we just can’t seem to get it together?”
The pill-gulping Riggs is a 5-2 favorite.
“King money is scarce, it’s hard to find a bet on the girl,” said Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, the voice of Las Vegas, checking into the hotel headquarters in a familiar checkered coat and arm loaded with form charts.
Earlier, Billie Jean, the 29-year-old champion of womens lib, had been no worse than an 8-5 underdog against the 55-year-old chauvinist who shamed Margaret Court in their Mother’s Day Battle of the Sexes in San Diego May 13.
— Associated Press story on the eve of the King-Riggs match.
Riggs was the ultimate self-promoter. Granted, he had been a marvelous player in his day, winning a total of six Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. But he was well into his 50s when he revived his — well, not so much his career, but his earning power — by declaring war on the burgeoning women’s game.
He boasted that even an over-the-hill men’s player such as himself could beat any of the best female players, sort of a precursor to the ludicrous comedy routine that Andy Kaufman would break out a few years later by declaring himself the “World Intergender Wrestling Champion” and offering up various prizes — from money to marriage — to any woman (always carefully picked in advance to go along with the gag) who could beat him in the ring.
Riggs was cut from the same cloth, but the matches were legit. In the first Battle of the Sexes, on Mother’s Day no less, Riggs demolished Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1, taking out the top female player in the world in less than an hour. It was a stunning outcome, given that Court was a quarter-century younger and would go on to win three of four Grand Slam titles that year.
After that, it was inevitable that Riggs would face King. The best-of-five match was set for Houston’s Astrodome, less than a decade old and still billed as the technological “Eighth Wonder of the World.” ABC televised the match live in prime-time to a worldwide audience. More than 30,000 people were in the seats. Howard Cosell was on hand to call the action, which summed up the importance of the event as much as anything.
The match itself was a letdown. King, on top of her game and fully aware of the significance of the moment, quickly made Riggs looks like a tired, old man .
“What happened?” Riggs said, repeating a question after it was done. “Billie Jean was just too strong for me.”
Jerald Podair, a professor of history at American studies at Lawrence University, said the match was huge leap forward for female athletes.
“The Battle of the Sexes was as important to the development of women’s sports in the United States as was Title IX itself,” he wrote in an email. “This was because Billie Jean King was a sports personality with such broad appeal that she could ‘sell’ the idea of women’s sports to a national audience.”
But Backus, looking back, views the event with mixed emotions.
“I don’t want to say ambivalent, but conflicted,” she said. “I felt like Bobby Riggs didn’t take it as seriously. When you’re afraid you’re going to lose, you take on that role, ‘Oh, I’m not really trying very hard.’ I remember feeling that.”
“Ever since the day I was 11 years old and wasn’t allowed in a photo because I didn’t have a tennis skirt on, I knew then that I wanted to change the sport,” the 29-year-old Mrs. King said.
— AP story after the match.
The “Battle of the Sexes” movie, which stars Emma Stone as King and Steve Carell as Riggs (who died in 1995), will be a welcome reminder of a night that wasn’t much of a sporting event — and wasn’t even the highest-rated TV show of the evening — but became a huge barometer of where we were headed as a nation.
“What it really did was give women the opportunity to be on TV and show they could be successful in sports. Before that, sports was just something that men were good at,” said Elizabeth Taylor, an assistant professor in the department of sport and recreation management at Temple University.
Unfortunately, change has come far too slowly.
Some attitudes are downright resistant to change.
Back in June, John McEnroe stirred things up when he said Serena Williams, probably the greatest female player ever, would be “like 700 in the world” if she had to play on the men’s circuit. It was an unfair, unnecessary comparison, but it showed that there are still those who want to use these sort of ridiculous comparison to put down female athletes.
We in the media bear some blame as well. While I’m confident none of us would write a story the way the AP did after the Battle of the Sexes, many of us still treat women athletes differently than we do their male counterparts.
“Not too long ago, I saw a female tennis player who was asked to give a twirl and show off her uniform after winning a championship. Or they’re asked about their boyfriends,” Taylor said. “Covering women sports as seriously as we do men’s sports is really important, too.”
You see, the King-Riggs match didn’t really decide the Battle of the Sexes.
It was only the beginning.
We’ve still got a long way to go, baby.