Curator's Corner: The Battle of the Sexes

10/11/2017

The Battle of the Sexes opened nationwide on September 29th to rave reviews. It’s exciting to see an important part of our sport’s history on the big screen! Read on to learn more about the events leading up to the match and the match itself, as well as the artifacts in our collection.

The year 1973 proved a pivotal one for women’s tennis. Three events proved especially significant. The first was the founding of the WTA, when Billie Jean King gathered women tennis players at the Gloucester Hotel in London on the 20th of June and they agreed to unionize. After Wimbledon, the US Open announced that it would be awarding equal prize money to the men’s and women’s champions, a victory for the newly-formed women’s tennis union. Then, on the night of September 20, at the Houston Astrodome, King played Bobby Riggs in the celebrated Battle of the Sexes. King defeated Riggs in a straight-set spectacle in front of a record-breaking television prime-time viewing audience and more than 30,400 spectators.

Court v. Riggs
Bobby Riggs disputed King’s assertion that women deserved equal prize money and challenged her to a match to settle the matter. But when King declined, Riggs’s next choice was the women’s number one, Margaret Court. The first Battle of the Sexes match took place on May 13, 1973, and became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre. While Riggs took the time before the match to get back competitive playing shape, Court had her ranking to defend, was also a new mother, and didn’t take the match as seriously as Riggs. The highly talented Australian succumbed to Riggs’s gamesmanship and ultimately lost her nerve—and the match. The Mother’s Day Massacre was seen by many as a setback to the advances made in professionalizing women’s tennis. Following his brisk dispatch of Court, Riggs capitalized on the media attention and continued goading King, setting the stage for one of the most famous tennis matches of all time.

 

Official Certificate of Sanction issued by the USLTA for the initial Battle of the Sexes tennis match between Margaret Smith Court and Bobby Riggs on May 4, 1973

Gift of Tony Trabert, 1991

 

Peanuts Cartoon, “Still Moping? I Can’t Believe It!”
Charles Schultz (American, 1922-2000)
Appearing in the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin on July 15, 1973, Schultz pays homage to a sport he loved while keeping the issues of equality in sports in the public consciousness. Gift of Marilyn and Edward Fernberger, 1995

The Battle of the Sexes
After Court’s loss, King realized that she needed to play Riggs in order to prove the necessity of all that she and her cohorts had been fighting for.  Since Riggs was known as “the ultimate promoter,” King prepared carefully to ensure the match was fair. Bobby Riggs was a one-man sideshow as the date of the showdown approached, with his incessant self-promotion inciting a nationwide frenzy. Even as some wagered against her, King stayed the course. “My job in the match…was to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation of Title IX and what we were trying to do with the women’s movement. It was to validate it, to celebrate it, and to get going towards changing a world where we had equality for both genders.”

Bobby Riggs was a savvy marketer and promoted the Sugar Daddy brand like a true professional. Riggs wore the Sugar Daddy logo when he entered the arena and for part of the match, earning $500,000. With almost 100 million people watching the match, Sugar Daddy sales skyrocketed afterwards.

 

Sugar Daddy® Windbreaker worn by Bobby Riggs
Gift of Patricia and Dick Carlson, 1982

 

Sugar Daddy® Giant Lollipop and Box (featuring Bobby Riggs), 1973
Loan courtesy of Jim Westhall, 1998

Playing before record crowds and the world-wide television audience under the lights at the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean King needed a custom outfit. Ted Tinling had a design in mind, but King thought the fabric was too rough and would hinder her concentration. Tinling created this dress instead.

Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes Tennis Dress (reproduction), 1973
Ted Tinling (British, 1910-1990)
Gift of the Estate of Ted Tinling, 1990

 

Tennis Shoes worn by Billie Jean King in 1973
adidas (German)
King was under contract from adidas to wear royal blue tennis shoes, and when Tinling created looks for her to wear, he always added some royal blue to, “validate the shoes.”
Gift of Billie Jean King, King Enterprises, 1977

T-Shirt Highlighting the Match Score
Loan courtesy of June Harrison, 1998

 

Official Program from the Battle of the Sexes Match on September 20, 1973
Gift of Naomi Rothschild, 1996

 

Tennis Racquet Covers titled “The Match” Featuring Caricatures of Riggs and King
Gift of Art Seitz, 2009

 

“King Power” pin produced by ABC to promote the match. 
Gift of Barbara Georgescu, 2013