Approaching 80, Billie Jean King is still globetrotting for investment in women’s sports
NEW YORK (AP) — Billie Jean King is still globetrotting in support of more investment and equity in women’s sports.
She attended the Women’s World Cup in Australia, kicked off the player draft for the new women’s professional hockey league in Toronto and is opening an office in London for a tennis business venture involving the international Billie Jean King Cup.
That’s all in the last three months for King, who turns 80 in November.
“We’re kind of at a tipping point,” King said. “People are actually looking at women’s sports like a great investment.”
She’s part of ownership groups involved with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the NWSL’s Angel City FC and the PWHL hockey league that starts in January.
Her busy schedule is reminiscent of the summer of 1973, when a 29-year-old King established the WTA, won the Wimbledon triple crown in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, achieved equal pay at the US Open and beat self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” match.
On Thursday, King and about 60 athletes will celebrate the 50th anniversary of equal prize money at the US Open and the King-Riggs match at her annual awards dinner for the Women’s Sports Foundation in New York.
In August, former President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama attended the US Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium to mark the pay equity milestone.
“Let us remember all of this is bigger than a champion’s paycheck,” Michelle Obama said during the ceremony on opening night. “This is about how women are seen and valued in this world.”
King recently launched the production company “Pressure is a Privilege,” a phrase associated with the 39-time Grand Slam winner. She’s also an executive producer and host of “Groundbreakers,” a documentary about female athletes that airs on PBS on Nov. 21.
There’s an effort by members of Congress to award King the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the highest US civilian honors given to individuals whose achievements have a lasting impact in their field.
Here’s a Q&A with King, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
AP: It’s the 50th anniversary of so many accomplishments in 1973. Talk about that whirlwind.
KING: We started the WTA four days before Wimbledon. I won all three titles at Wimbledon, which for me was a big deal. Then equal prize money came into being, it started in 1972 with us saying we’re not coming back (to the US Open in 1973). Then King-Riggs. That’s all in 3 months. I can appreciate it since being away from it so long. How the heck did we do that?
AP: You’ve said the King-Riggs match was about social change, women standing up for themselves in all areas.
KING: It was really about men, too. Because men started to shift a little. Obama was 12 years old when he saw the King-Riggs match. He said it affected him a lot. Guys are much better thinking about their daughters than they used to be. All these things add up.
AP: You’re part of ownership groups for pro sports. How did you get involved in women’s pro hockey, which will have teams in Boston, New York, Minnesota, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal?
KING: The PWHL, it’s really exciting. It took five years. Plus, it took all those years of the other leagues, everyone trying. (US Olympic gold medalist) Kendall Coyne said, ‘can you help us?’ We need to have a league where the very best players will play. We went to Toronto and I did an opening speech about trailblazers. It was amazing because the families were crying, the players were crying, they said ‘we’ve never been treated like this, it’s amazing, we feel like pros for the first time.’ There were a lot of little kids there. Kids are going to have an amazing opportunity that the generations before them never had. All three of their networks had it on. It’s a religion up there.
AP: How is investment in women’s sports changing?
KING: I’m asking CEOs and everyone now — ‘do you invest as much in women as you do in men?’ Then it usually gets quiet. But I must say it’s better than it used to be. We’re really lucky to be with this investment group. The male allies we’ve had through the years have made such a difference. They have the money and the power. But we’re getting there, getting more and more women investors, particularly in soccer. Women’s sports, we’ve all been fighting for it.
AP: What would you like to see in the future for women’s sports?
KING: More. And make sure we get girls early in life into sports. It’s really about the health issue, more than anything. More jobs, more everything. Women of color and diversity is really important.
We only get 5 per cent of the media. That’s where the money is. People always say, ‘why doesn’t the WTA have as much money as the ATP?’ I’m like, really? If you watch a show at night, a sports show, just count how many minutes are on men and how many minutes are on women. We’re at 5 per cent. We’ve got to change that.