It’s September 20th, 1973 in a sports stadium in Houston, Texas.
Beneath the bright lights of the packed Houston Astrodome, 29-year-old American tennis champion Billie Jean King gets in position. She cuts her eyes over to her opponent: a 55-year-old retired men’s champion, Bobby Riggs. Bobby challenged Billie Jean to this one-off, winner-takes-all exhibition match. And tonight, Bobby hopes to prove that even the greatest female tennis player on earth still cannot beat a man. But Billie Jean is determined to prove him wrong. As she gets ready to serve, the umpire raises his hand… and hush falls over the record-breaking crowd of 30,000 spectators.
Billie Jean bounces the ball against the hard surface of the court. She tries not to think about the people in the stadium, or the television cameras broadcasting to 90 million viewers around the world.
As Billie takes a steadying breath, Bobby grins confidently, his racket held casually by his side - as if he expects this contest to be easy. With gritted teeth, Billie Jean pushes her spectacles to the bridge of her nose. Then she launches the ball high into the air… and smashes her first serve straight into the net.
The crowd groans and jeers. But Billie Jean blocks out the noise. She picks up a new ball and gets ready for another serve. This time… the ball slices over the net.
Bobby returns it with a powerful drive to Billie Jean’s backhand.
Billie Jean attempts a lob - but she over-swings, and the ball sails out of bounds. The umpire leans forward and announces the score into his microphone.
Billie Jean returns to the baseline, shaking her head. She picks up a new ball and wipes away a bit of perspiration from her brow. Then again, she lifts her gaze to her opponent, who leers at her from across the court. Billie Jean feels a shot of adrenaline course through her veins and a renewed determination. With fire in her eyes, she steadies her breath - and her nerves - and gets ready to score a victory for equality.
With several championship titles under her belt, Billie Jean King is no stranger to performing on the big stage. She recently became the first female athlete to win over 100,000 dollars in prize money in a single season: an astonishing feat made even more impressive by the fact that women tennis players are paid significantly less than men.
Tonight, Billie Jean is determined to show the world that women’s tennis is a legitimate sport and that women athletes are every bit as impressive as their male counterparts; a point she hopes to make by winning a decisive victory in this so-called “Battle of the Sexes” on September 20th, 1973.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is September 20th, 1973: Billie Jean King Wins the “Battle of the Sexes”
Act One: The Virginia Slims
It’s September 13th, 1970 in Queens, New York; three years before Billie Jean King takes on Bobby Riggs in Houston.
Billie Jean walks through the lobby of the Forest Hills Tennis Club alongside her husband, Larry.
Tonight is the champion’s ball, a fancy affair celebrating the end of the US Open Tennis Championships. The lobby is filled with players, coaches, and promoters chatting over champagne.
Billie Jean tugs awkwardly at the sleeves of her ball gown. She hates these formal events; and would much rather be out on the court, practicing or playing. To Billie Jean, nothing is more important than tennis; everything else is a distraction. And it’s this level of focus and dedication that has already led the California native to five Grand Slam singles titles - more than any other female American tennis player.
Soon, a stern-looking black-haired woman makes a beeline for Billie Jean through the crowd. Gladys Heldman is the founder of World Tennismagazine and an outspoken advocate for equal pay between male and female players. She thrusts a piece of paper into Billie Jean’s hands and asks: “have you seen this?”
It’s a press release for the upcoming Pacific Southwest Championships. Gladys points to a section of the document that shows the prize money: $12,500 for the men; $1,500 for the women. Billie isn’t surprised. Women athletes earning less than their male counterparts is a fact of life in 1970. Still, this is the largest disparity in prize money Billie Jean’s ever seen.
With quiet indignation, she says, “this must be a joke.” But Gladys is deadly serious. She grabs Billie Jean’s arm and pulls her across the room, growling, “Come on. Let’s… have a word with Jack.”
Jack Kramer is an influential tennis promoter and the director of the Pacific Southwest Championships. Soon, Gladys and Billie Jean find him in the clubhouse lounge. The 49-year-old Jack smiles, raises his glass in greeting, and purrs, “What can I do for you, ladies?” Gladys brandishes the press release and demands an explanation.
Jack sips his whiskey. Then, calmly, and patronizingly, he explains that the men are simply more exciting to watch. They draw more spectators, and the prize money has to reflect that reality. Billie Jean rolls her eyes. She reminds Jack that the women's final of the U.S. Open attracted the same number of spectators as the men’s. But Jack merely shrugs and says “Sorry, ladies. There’s nothing I can do.”
A few days later, Gladys, Billie Jean, and several other players stand around the women’s locker room at Forest Hills Tennis Club bemoaning the sexism blighting their sport. Someone suggests boycotting Jack’s Pacific Southwest Championships. But Gladys goes one step further: if they want to show Jack they mean business, they should hold a rival tournament the same week as his Championships - a competition exclusively for women.
In 1970, all official tennis competitions in America fall under the jurisdiction of the United States Lawn Tennis Association - or the USLTA. The USLTA is an old-fashioned but powerful institution hostile toward women’s tennis. By participating in a rival tournament, these women risk being kicked out of the USLTA, which could jeopardize their participation in future competitions. So for these women, it’s a choice between keeping their careers or standing by their principles. But for Billie Jean, it’s not a choice at all.
One week later, on September 23rd, 1970, eight tennis players posed for photographs inside the Houston Racquet Club. It’s the opening day of the Houston Women’s Invitation - a rival tournament held in opposition to Jack Kramer’s contest. Among the eight participants is Billie Jean King.
Billie Jean smiles for the camera, but she’s feeling nervous; she stands by her decision to be here, but she has no idea what the future holds for her career now.
Two days ago, the president of the USLTA telephoned Gladys Heldman - the organizer of the event. He threatened to suspend all eight players if they went ahead with the unsanctioned tournament. He also reminded Gladys that without USLTA approval, the Houston competition could not be deemed “professional” and therefore could not offer prize money. The competition would proceed, but only as an amateurtournament.
But that didn’t stop Gladys. Instead of running her tournament through the normal channels, she offered the eight players contracts through her magazine, taking the tournament out of USLTA jurisdiction and allowing her to offer the players prize money.
The first-ever Houston Women’s Invitation is a resounding success. It’s so popular that Gladys introduces a whole new circuit for women players. To source prize money, she secures sponsorship from the cigarette manufacturer, Philip Morris, who uses the tour as a marketing vehicle for a brand of cigarette aimed at women.
And thus, the Virginia Slims Tour is born.
Over the next twelve months, women’s tennis blossoms. Publicity grows and sponsorship money starts rolling in. Before long, the USLTA is forced to acknowledge the error of its ways. The organization re-admits the suspended players, and certain tournaments begin offering equal prize money to men and women. But even as women’s tennis enjoys a bigger profile, resentment, and jealousy will fester among the old tennis establishment. Soon, one individual will see the ever-increasing success of Billie Jean King as a threat, and he will try everything in his power to take her down.
Act Two: Male Chauvinist Pigs
It’s September 1972, in an office building in midtown Manhattan; one year before the Battle of the Sexes.
55-year-old Bobby Riggs, an employee of the American Photographic Corporation, sits in his drab office watching the semi-final of the U.S. Open on television.
Bobby leans in close and looks on as Billie Jean King cruises to a forty-love advantage in the final set. Billie Jean’s opponent is an Australian champion, Margaret Court - a woman many believe is the world’s greatest female player. Today, though, she can’t cope with Billie Jean’s speed and aggression.
Bobby’s eyes narrow as Billie Jean throws her arms up in victory. Then he turns off the television and leans back in his chair.
Thirty years ago, Bobby Riggs was the number one-ranked male tennis player in the world. He won three major singles titles in 1939: the U.S. Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon. But after retiring, Bobby fell on hard times. He gambled away his winnings and was ultimately forced to take a menial office job at the company owned by his father-in-law.
Bobby looks at a photograph of his wife on his desk. Priscilla recently filed for divorce because of Bobby’s gambling addiction. Bobby knows he has a problem. Blackjack’s his game, but he’ll bet on anything: dogs, horses, college football. To Bobby, nothing feels better than taking a risk and winning.
Above all though, Bobby loves to bet on himself. Back when he played tennis professionally, he would put money on himself whenever he entered a tournament. These days, he’ll make the odd wager on golf games with his work buddies. But nothing beats the thrill of playing for real money in front of a crowd; of pitting yourself against your opponent on the main stage, under the lights.
Bobby takes a tennis ball from his desk drawer and bounces it against the wall, lost in thought. Over the past 12 months, the likes of Billie Jean King have been campaigning for equal pay and equal opportunities for women tennis players. They seem to be getting their way and making good money at it.
Bobby shakes his head bitterly. Billie Jean is a good tennis player. But is she thatgood? Is she a hundred thousand dollarsgood? Bobby would love the chance to compete for that kind of money. He might be well over fifty, but he’s in good shape. And he’d bet on himself to beat any of these women, even the great Billie Jean King.
Suddenly, a brilliant notion occurs to Bobby; an idea for a publicity stunt that would humiliate the so-called “women’s liberation movement” and catapult Bobby Riggs back into the spotlight.
Five months later, in February of 1973, Bobby gives a press conference in San Diego. Before a roomful of reporters, Bobby declares himself a “male chauvinist pig” and a firm believer that a woman’s rightful place is in the kitchen - not the tennis court. Then he holds up a $5,000 check and offers the money to Billie Jean King or Margaret Court - the two best female players in the world. All either one has to do is agree to play him.
When Billie Jean hears about the challenge, she knows what Bobby’s angle is: he wants to humiliate his opponent and turn women’s tennis into a laughing stock. She has no intention of playing Bobby’s silly little game.
But Margaret Court does not share Billie Jean’s concerns. She isn’t worried about damaging the reputation of women’s tennis because she fully expects to win the match and Bobby’s money.
Bobby is disappointed though. He wanted to play Billie Jean because she’s the face of the feminist movement in tennis. Margaret Court isn’ta feminist - she’s a conservative, church-going woman. But in many ways, playing the Australian titan has advantages. She’s currently the top-seeded female player in the world. Beating her would arguably make an even bigger statement.
So, three months later, on Mother’s Day, Bobby Riggs and Margaret Court face off in an exhibition match before a capacity crowd at San Diego Country Estates. The showdown has been hotly anticipated in the press. Bobby has spent the last few weeks deriding women’s tennis, making outrageous chauvinistic statements to stir up a media frenzy.
Billie Jean King is among the 30 million people watching on television. To Billie Jean’s dismay, Bobby wipes the floor with Margaret, beating her decisively. It’s a crushing blow for women’s tennis; the match is dubbed “the Mother’s Day Massacre.” And as she watches Bobby’s self-satisfied smirk taunting her, Billie Jean makes a decision: she’s going to play Bobby Riggs… and she’s going to win.
Act Three: Battle of the Sexes
It’s September 20th, 1973.
All across America, audiences are settling down for ABC’s television coverage of the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs - a showdown that has been dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes”.
In California, tennis promoter Jack Kramer tunes into ABC from his Los Angeles mansion. Jack has never forgiven Billie Jean for boycotting his Pacific Southwest Championship in 1970, and tonight, he’s rooting for his old pal, Bobby Riggs.
Jack turns up the volume of his television and watches as Billie Jean gives an interview…
“Billy Jean King: And I really feel that as a professional athlete, I owed it to myself, to tennis players, and to professional athletes, in general, to get it in gear…”
"Telecaster: “the feminist thing… how important is that, Billie?”
"Billy Jean King: “The women’s movement is important to me, as long as it stays practical… and I think that the women’s movement is really making a better life for more people other than just women…"
Jack scoffs. He’s sick and tired of all this talk about women’s liberation. To his mind, feminism is the worst thing that’s happened to tennis. His scowl is replaced by a smile when Bobby appears on screen, dressed in a bright yellow tracksuit…
"Bobby Riggs: “I’m ready to play and I’m gonna try to win for all the guys around the world who feel as I do that the male is king, the male is supreme. I said it over and over again, I still feel that way, Girls play a nice game of tennis for girls, but when they get out there on the court with a man… even a tired old man of fifty-five… they’re going to be in big trouble.”
Jack chuckles and shakes his head. He raises his glass to Bobby for saying all the things that he and many others in the USLTA have always wanted to say. And as the match begins, Jack’s good mood continues as Bobby gets the best of Billie Jean and goes 2-1 up in first set.
But soon, the tide turns. Billie Jean plays with a renewed determination. Bobby chases after her drop shots and cross-court drives - but he can’t keep up. Billie Jean breezes through the first two sets and pulls ahead in the third.
Before long, it’s match point…
"COMMENTATOR: “Third match point for Billie Jean King…”
Billie Jean King has defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. Following the match, the two players shake hands over the net. Billie Jean knows Bobby Riggs is a showman - that his misogyny was largely a desperate act to generate publicity. She doesn’t have ill will towards him. Her main feeling after the match is pride; she’s just demonstrated, once and for all, that women’s tennis is just as exciting as men’s - if not more.
Following her victory in Houston, Billie Jean will continue campaigning for equal opportunities for women athletes. In 1974, she will found the Women’s Sports Foundation, helping female athletes - especially girls and women of color - obtain grants to pursue their careers. Over the years, the Foundation will give out close to $100 million.
Defeating Bobby Riggs was by no means the greatest achievement of Billie Jean King’s glittering career, but it was undeniably a powerful symbolic triumph for equality, a victory Billie Jean King claimed when she won the Battle of the Sexes on September 20th, 1973.
Next onHistory Daily.September 21st, 1780. American General Benedict Arnold meets with a British spy to discuss handing over West Point, a major American stronghold, in exchange for money and a position in the British Army.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.