One of the most famous tennis matches in history happened 46 years ago today. Bobby Riggs, an aging champion, challenged Billie Jean King in the match known as the “Battle of the Sexes.” The year was 1973. Riggs was the 1939 Wimbledon champion and a “self-proclaimed male chauvinist,” according to History.com, and decided to challenge top female tennis players to prove that even a man long past his prime could beat the top women in the field.
According to billiejeanking.com, King initially didn’t want to play Riggs, but following his crushing 6-1 defeat of Margaret Court, King “realized she now had to play him, and accepted his challenge to disprove his baseless assertions.”
The media erupted. Riggs flooded the airwaves with his baseless and sexist exertions and partied in the months leading up to the match, while King continued her normal training regiment. Finally, Sept. 20 arrived and 48 million people in the United States alone tuned in to watch the match. According to time.com, King was “carried on a divan by a team of shirtless men” and Riggs was brought in by a group of women.
Seventy of King’s 109 points were untouched by Riggs. Billie Jean King emerged victorious, and was awarded the winner-take-all prize of $100,000. The victory was so satisfying to the public that in 2017 a film adaptation was released starring Emma Stone as King and Steve Carrell as Riggs.
While Riggs’ statements may seem appalling now, one quote in the lead up to the match isn’t that far off from today. Riggs said “women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get.”
King may have proven that women can play just as well and even better than men, but the pay disparity, if less severe, remains. According to a June article from Forbes by Olivia Abrams, “Why Female Athletes Earn Less Than Men Across Most Sports,” the only female athletes who make comparable amounts to their male counter-parts are tennis players.
In fact, according to another Forbes article, “The Highest-Paid Female Athletes 2018,” all but two of the top 10 paid female athletes are tennis players (the other two are a badminton player and a NASCAR driver).
Abrams reports that the top WNBA salary was $117,500 last season, which seems ok until it’s compared to the whooping top salary of the NBA— $37.4 million. The difference between National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) softball league and Major League Baseball (MLB) salaries are even more stark. The NPF has a team salary cap of just $175,000, while according to Abrams the Boston Red Socks will earn $227 million.
Critics argue that women’s leagues draw less viewership, but the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, which according to Abrams “generated more revenue than the men’s team over the past three years,” has taken to the justice system to receive equal pay.
According to the ESPN article “U.S. women’s soccer equal pay fight: What’s the latest, and what’s next?” by Emily Kaplan, mediation has failed and the court date is set for May 5, 2020.
It may have been almost half a century ago that Billie Jean King met, and defeated, Bobby Riggs, winning the “Battle of the Sexes,” but as a society, we still have a long way to go before King’s vision of the equality of the sexes is fully realized.