Battle of the Sexes

Bobby Riggs had risen to the top of men’s tennis in the 1940s. A longtime promoter of the game with the soul of a pool hall hustler, Riggs used his gifts for hamming it up and good-natured obnoxiousness to set off a media frenzy around his challenge to then-Number One women’s player Margaret Court, claiming that even at age 55 he could beat any woman in the world. Riggs pounded Court in straight sets–on Mother’s Day, no less–and landed on the cover of Time magazine. Sports Illustrated warned, “Never bet against this man.”

SchultzS14Billie Jean King, having refused Riggs once, took up his challenge in the wake of the Court defeat. For weeks, media attention swirled around “The Battle of the Sexes.” King and Riggs would play a best of five sets match at no less storied a venue than the Houston Astrodome, in 1973 known more as a wonder of the modern world than as the leaky home of a bad baseball team.

Riggs approached the duel as part vaudeville, part tennis. King, an ardent advocate of women’s equality, saw it as a huge opportunity to make a statement. “King was playing not just for public acceptance of the women’s game,” said an ESPN The Magazine profile years later, “but also an opportunity to prove her gender’s equality at a time when women could still not obtain a credit card without a man’s signature.”

As Jaime Schultz relates in her new book Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport, the match was only part of a watershed year for women in sports:

More than thirty thousand people gathered in the Houston Astrodome, while another ninety million television viewers in more than forty different countries tuned in to see King wallop Riggs in three straight sets. In the end, the match “legitimized women’s tennis,” wrote King. “It was the culmination of an era, the noisy conclusion to the noisiest three years in the history of the women’s game.”

The King-Riggs match provided the seed capital for the champion to launch the magazine womenSports the following year. As King’s then husband remembers, she had been thumbing through an issue of Sports Illustrated, condemning the lack of women in its coverage. He suggested she start her own magazine, to which she replied, “Let’s do it.” Women were also beginning to make headway in the media’s traditionally male bastions. After a year of struggle, the National Hockey League allowed postgame locker-room access to journalists Robin Herman and Marcel St. Cyr. “It was at the height of the women’s movement,” Herman later said. “It was important to be bold. It was a matter of equity.” During that time, Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke and her employer, Time, Inc., successfully sued Major League Baseball and its commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, in order to gain access to locker-room interviews for all journalists, regardless of sex.