Remembering History: Billie Jean King ushers in new era of women’s equality with 1973 ‘The Battle of the Sexes’ victory

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs Arm Wrestling
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Tennis great Billie Jean King made headlines this past week when the United States Tennis Association (USTA) announced it would be celebrating 50 years of awarding equal prize money at the U.S. Open with 2023 theme art commemorating King’s efforts on the occasion.

“No individual has done more to secure equality for female athletes than Billie Jean King,” USTA president Brian Hainline said in a statement. “Her impact goes far beyond the tennis court, and there is no better time to celebrate her legacy than on the anniversary of this historic milestone.”

This year’s theme art – designed by 40-year-old illustrator Camila Pinheiro from São Paulo, Brazil – features an eye-catching portrait of a 1973-era King in front of a colorful, graphic New York skyline.

“I want people to look back and see the achievements and value that we have in the present,” Pinheiro said. “I want this art to convey a sense of great excitement for the achievement and justice achieved by this great woman, and for us to continue to value women and recognize each one for their contributions today.”

Reflecting on the equal-pay accomplishment, King recently told USA Today that, “It was a lot of hard work.” That work actually started one year prior, when King was struck by the notion of fighting for equal pay during her winning press conference at the 1972 U.S. Open.

“I won and got $10,000, while the men’s champion, Ilie Nastase, won and got $25,000,” she explained. “This was ridiculous, so I said, ‘I don’t think the women are going to be back next year. We’re not going to be back in 1973 unless we get equal prize money.’ I’m saying this but just hoping and trusting the other players would go along with it at that point.”

King recalls taking matters into her own hands, approaching the challenge “as a businesswoman” and personally encouraging sponsors to commit more prize money. Her efforts succeeded, and at the 1973 U.S. Open, the men’s and women’s champion each received $25,000.

The USTA’s recent announcement notably came on March 14, which is known as “Equal Pay Day” by the National Committee on Pay Equity. The day symbolizes how far into the new year women must work to earn what men earned by Dec. 31 of last year. As On Her Turf continues its celebration of Women’s History Month, we take a closer look at one of the most notable chapters in King’s legendary career – and one that also took place during that pivotal year of 1973: “The Battle of the Sexes.”

RELATED: Remembering History — 1991 U.S. World Cup team signals start of three-decade USWNT dynasty

The now-famous showdown between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and a 29-year-old King was televised internationally from the Houston Astrodome, where 30,472 fans were in the stands while an estimated 50 million people tuned in in the United States and 90 million watched worldwide. King won in straight sets, but needless to say, the event was no straightforward affair.

“Though the atmosphere surrounding King’s shocking 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Riggs took on all the conflicting tones of a political convention, championship prizefight, rock festival, tent revival, town meeting, Super Bowl and sick joke, what the match finally got down to was a dazzling clinical exhibition of tennis by Billie Jean,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Curry Kirkpatrick in his definitive narrative of the day titled, “There She Is, Ms. America.”

Tennis Player Billie Jean King Being Carried on Palanquin
Billie Jean King is carried to the court for her tennis match with 55-year-old aging tennis star Bobby Riggs. (Getty Images archive)

Riggs, a top player in the 1940s, was ranked year-end No. 1 three times and had won six major championships during his career, including three Wimbledon titles. He retired from professional tennis in 1951 but remained a master promoter of himself and of tennis. Craving a return to the spotlight and calling the women’s game inferior, Riggs claimed that even at his current age of 55 he could still beat any of the top female players.

Riggs first challenged King, who declined, and Margaret Court stepped in. Thirty years old at the time, Court had recently returned to tennis after giving birth to her first child in March 1972 and was in the middle of earning her seventh year-end No. 1 ranking. More than 5,000 fans turned out for the match, which was held May 13, 1973, in Ramona, California. Televised by CBS Sports, Riggs used a mix of drop shots and lobs to keep Court off balance, notching a quick victory (6-2, 6-1) and landing on the cover of both Sports Illustrated and Time.

Riggs then kicked his taunting up a notch, turning his sights on King once again and calling her a “women’s libber leader.” “I’ll play her on clay, grass, wood, cement, marble or roller skates,” Riggs said. “We got to keep this sex thing going. I’m a woman specialist now.”

King accepted this time around, agreeing to a lucrative financial offer to play Riggs on Sept. 20, 1973. At a July press conference announcing the $100,000 winner-take-all match, which also included at least $75,000 each in ancillary money, Riggs said, “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman, and they don’t have the emotional stability.”

King responded by calling him a “creep.” But come match day, she also embraced the spectacle that came with the showdown. She entered the court like Cleopatra, riding on a feather-adorned gold litter carried by toga-wearing members of the Rice University men’s track team. Not to be upstaged, Riggs rode in on a rickshaw surrounded by scantily clad women known as “Bobby’s bosom buddies.” King then presented Riggs with a squealing piglet – a symbol of male chauvinism – and in return received from Riggs a large “Sugar Daddy” lollipop, which she said she’d donate to an orphanage. Riggs played the first three games wearing a yellow jacket with the “Sugar Daddy” logo on the back.

Bobby Riggs Carried onto Tennis Court
Bobby Riggs holding a large “Sugar Daddy” lollipop while being carried to the court for his match against Billie Jean King. (Getty Images archive)

Normally a serve-and-volley player, King made a concerted effort to wear Riggs down with baseline rallies. She won the first set 6-4, recording several winners and securing the final point on a double fault by Riggs. Riggs held the upper hand briefly at the start of the second set, when he broke King’s serve in the first game, but he eventually lost the set 6-3. Visibly tiring, he lost the third set 6-3 as well. When Riggs hit a high backhand volley into the net on match point, King flung her racket into the air in celebration.

“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King said afterward. “It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem. To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me. The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”

King received her $100,000 check from boxer George Foreman, one of several celebrities on hand at the Astrodome, and subsequently landed multiple endorsement deals including Adidas sneakers, Wilson tennis rackets, Colgate toothpaste and Sunbeam hair curlers. Her income reportedly neared $1 million in 1974.

Billie Jean King gets her check from boxer George Foreman after beating Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” (Photo by Disney General Entertainment Content via Getty Images Photo Archives via Getty Images)

After the fact, Riggs gave King due credit, saying: “She played within herself all night. She was never extended. The girl was all over me the whole time. I didn’t know Billie Jean was so quick.”

King retired from competitive singles in 1983 with 12 major championships on her resume, including six Wimbledon titles and four U.S. Opens. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987. She’s received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year lifetime achievement award, and in 1990 was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and in 2020 the Federation Cup was renamed the Billie Jean King Cup in her honor.

Yet for all her accolades and achievements, King might still be best known for a single victory.

“I thought maybe we would go away if I didn’t beat Bobby,” she told USA Today. “Title IX had just passed the year before, and I was worried women’s sports would be in trouble if I didn’t win. I knew people would be making bets, husbands and wives, sororities and fraternities. It was that big of a deal and all these years later, people still come up to me to tell me what it meant to them.”

Learn more about the legendary women who blazed athletic trails in this five-part series, “Remembering History,” as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features on Alice Coachman, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, tennis great Althea Gibson, race car driver Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s win over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” 

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2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

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Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

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