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Billie Jean King Wants Athletes to Follow the Money

You can draw a line from the one-dollar contract that Billie Jean King and eight other players signed, in 1970, with the publisher and promoter Gladys Heldman, to form a separate women’s tennis tour, and the three million dollars that Naomi Osaka took home for winning the 2020 U.S. Open—the same amount that the men’s winner, Dominic Thiem, received. The contract with Heldman led to the founding of the Women’s Tennis Association, in 1973. That same year, King successfully pushed the U.S. Open to start offering equal prize money to women. You can extend the line further, to the fifty-five million dollars that Osaka made in a single year when endorsements are included—because King not only helped change the paradigm for women’s tennis players but also the marketplace for female athletes, and she played a significant role in the women’s movement.

It would be a mistake, though, to think that King was solely focussed on promoting opportunities for women. As she writes in her new memoir, “All In,” she’s had a keen sense for discrimination of any kind since she was a child. She also believed, early on, that she could do something about it. Billie Jean Moffitt was born on November 22, 1943, in Long Beach, California. Her father, Bill, was a firefighter; her mother, Betty, was a homemaker. Her younger brother Randy also became a professional athlete, pitching in the major leagues for twelve seasons. Billie Jean was introduced to tennis at the age of eleven, at a friend’s country club, but she honed her game on public courts. As a teen-ager, she became one of the top players in the country, and, soon, the world. In 1965, she married a law student named Larry King. They had a loving but unusual relationship. He encouraged her efforts to speak out against the patriarchal structure of tennis, and they became business partners as much as spouses. Billie Jean eventually realized that she was attracted to women. In 1981, she was publicly outed by a woman with whom she’d had a relationship and who was attempting to extort her. Larry and Billie Jean divorced in 1987; King has been with her partner, Ilana Kloss, for more than forty years.

On the court, King won thirty-nine Grand Slam titles, twelve of them in singles. Off it, she not only founded the W.T.A. but also co-founded, with Larry and others, a popular coed pro league, called World TeamTennis, and a magazine, womenSports. She launched the Women’s Sports Foundation and lobbied for the passage of Title IX. Later, she became an advocate for L.G.B.T.Q. rights and racial justice. But she is perhaps best known for defeating Bobby Riggs at the Houston Astrodome in a 1973 spectacle known as the Battle of the Sexes. It hardly mattered that Riggs was a fifty-five-year-old, washed-up gambling addict, or that King had won three of the four Grand Slams the previous year—what was at stake was more than a tennis match. Riggs caricatured the role of the swaggering misogynist—but men really did openly talk the way he did. Married women often couldn’t even get a credit card without their husbands’ approval. The pressure on King was immense, and her victory—watched by tens of millions on television—was a cultural flash point (and, much later, a movie starring Emma Stone).

King is seventy-seven now, and still tireless. She speaks with obvious passion and curiosity—one thought sparks another; one anecdote winds into a different one altogether. I’ve rarely done interviews in which the subject was so eager to hear what I think, too. Our conversation has been edited both for length and for clarity.

There’s an interesting scene in your book of you going to the U.S. Open and pushing for equal prize money, in 1973. You’d already lined up some of the money through sponsors.

I didn’t want to come in with one dime less than equal money. We got it through sponsorship. Bristol-Myers was so good to us. These things can happen when somebody has power and can say yes. We really got lucky. But, if you notice, everything we did, we always tried to do everything behind the scenes first. We tried everything behind the scenes first.

I feel like most of the athletes do not understand the business side of things. Athletes say, What should I do? What should I learn about? I go, Learn the other side of the story—learn the business side. Most players just want more money. And I’m, like, Just understand their side, so when you sit down to speak, and have dialogue, you actually have some understanding and empathy for them. And, if you can show that, I think they’ll start to think about you in a different way as well. It’s just about relationships—everything.

This is a volatile moment for labor in tennis, with the launch of the Professional Tennis Players Association, an organization led by Novak Djokovic, aimed at giving players more of a say in the operation of the sport, and a larger share of the revenue. At least initially, women weren’t a part of it—though the group has said that the plan was always to include women. They’re obviously not doing everything behind the scenes first.

They didn’t. They never talked to me, so I don’t know what the thinking is. When I was at Wimbledon, I kept asking people, but nobody seems to know anything. They’ve definitely improved their Web site—they’ve got politically correct language now. They only talk about the women if they’re pushed, though. That’s not good enough. They’ve got heavy hitters, they’ve got money—Djokovic is definitely going to be the best ever, which is really important. But I don’t know how much people want to follow him.

If they had come to you, what would you have said?

I would’ve just continued behind the scenes. If you go back to the sixties, when we finally got pro tennis—“open” tennis—I went around to the men, trying to get one association: the men and women together. They rejected it. It was a rough time, because these guys, some of them are my dear friends, and they didn’t care. And it’s still rough, because, generally, the men don’t really care about us. I don’t see any big push with the women with this new association.

What I wanted in the sixties was one association. I also wanted the players to own the majors—and own the game, basically. And the men said, No, no, no, it’s great the way it is. And I said, Well, it’s going to have challenges, and I think the players should be getting a percentage of the growth, at least. They just looked at me like I had five heads. Larry kept telling me, The guys do not want you—do not even bother with them, because they don’t care. They don’t believe in you guys. And they think that money is theirs. And that was correct. They kept saying, Well, the money should come to us.

That was the sixties. If you look at Sports Illustrated covers [from the time, featuring women], they had skiers, swimmers—all individual sports, always a beauty shot. In the beginning, usually sports that people were interested in were where girls don’t wear that many clothes. Men control the media. That has a lot to do with it. I think they still get away with a lot of that. It was individual sports, where there’s no contact, which is more ladylike to them. So you have to understand the climate and the society at the time. It’s gotten better for your generation, and the younger ones coming up, but it’s still not where we want it.

One thing I want to stress here is that, when a woman leads, she leads for everyone. What people do to us is, when a woman leads, we lead only for women, for change just for women—that’s what people say. It really irritates me, because I think that’s why we don’t have a woman President of the United States. We’re always a support system. We only have half the market all the time because of the way people perceive us. It happened with the King-Riggs match. “Oh, look what you did for women.” No, no, no. You guys, when I lead, I lead for everyone.

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