Billie Jean King’s ‘Battle of the Sexes’ inspiring 50 years later

Billie Jean King was carried on a gilded, feather-covered chair held by muscular, costumed athletes from Rice University to the makeshift tennis court at the Houston Astrodome, an over-the-top entrance to an over-the-top event.

Bobby Riggs was brought out in a rickshaw accompanied by models known as “Bobby’s Bosom Buddies.” After a successful career in which he won U.S. amateur and professional championships, a Wimbledon singles title and the world No. 1 ranking in 1939, he had slipped into gray territory and become a punter and brazen hustler. True to his style that night, he wore a jacket with the Sugar Daddy Candy logo. The women surrounding him wore tight T-shirts with the same logo.

An intriguing backstory added to the drama. King had rejected his initial challenge to play him and instead took on Margaret Court in what became known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre”. He bragged that he would beat King just as hard after she agreed to run against him on September 20, 1973. Women lack emotional stability, he explained. Certainly no woman could beat him, even though he was 55 and King was 29 and had recently won her fifth Wimbledon singles title.

In front of high-profile celebrities and a national television audience listening to bombastic superstar announcer Howard Cosell’s play-by-play calls, King gave Riggs a live pig, a nod to Riggs’ self-proclaimed male chauvinistic pig-keeping. Riggs gave King a giant Sugar Daddy lollipop. At the start of the game, he kept his jacket on, sure he wouldn’t break a sweat against a woman.

Once the formalities were completed, King began changing the course of sports history and giving lasting power to the growing women’s rights movement.

Billie Jean King checks her ability to move "Battle of the sexes" Archenemy Bobby Riggs on a tennis court.

Billie Jean King checks the movement strength of her “Battle of the Sexes” nemesis Bobby Riggs on a tennis court in New York on July 11, 1973.

(Anthony Camerano/Associated Press)

Wednesday marks the 50th anniversary of the day King outwitted and outplayed Riggs to win the best-of-five match 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, earning himself a then-amazing $100,000 in prize money to secure US dollars. In the process, she inspired dreams and determination in women who were repeatedly told they didn’t deserve a place on the field, on the court, in medical or law school, or in the boardroom. A U.S. television audience of 50 million and a global audience of an estimated 90 million saw something bigger than a match: They saw social change.

But who would have thought that people would still be talking about the game 50 years later?

“I actually thought they could. It was really important,” King said during a phone interview last week. “It was really a huge opportunity because everyone saw the same thing and I knew it was about changing people’s hearts and minds.

“I was very clear. I thought long and hard about the meaning. If I lose, will it benefit us or will it set us back years? And I knew it was one of those moments in history. I knew it was special and I knew it was important that I win.”

It was important because it took place at a time when women were starting to shatter old stereotypes, and she wanted to erase every sliver of that glass ceiling.

Bobby Riggs makes his grand entrance to the Houston Astrodome in a rickshaw.

Bobby Riggs makes his grand entrance to the Astrodome in a rickshaw before his Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Billie Jean King.

(Associated Press)

Three years earlier, King was among nine courageous women who broke away from the sexist tennis establishment to form their own tour and seek better treatment and prize money. She delayed playing against Riggs to complete the formation of the Women’s Tennis Assn. in June 1973. Title IX, which banned sex discrimination in educational programs or activities funded with federal funds, was barely a year old when she went to trial in Houston.

“I didn’t want it to be weakened,” she said of the landmark legislation. “I thought if I lost this match it could hurt Title IX. It would be damaging to the feminist movement, which was in its second wave.

“We were just getting started and I just knew this was a great opportunity to build momentum one way or another. Either it would be a leap forward or it would make our path much more difficult. And when I say that, I don’t just mean tennis. I mean women everywhere. And really, to change people’s hearts and minds, because they had more power than us. So how do we get powerful people to change their hearts and minds?”

Given his insults and behavior, it was unlikely that King and Riggs would later become friends. In her 2021 autobiography, All In, she wrote that she spoke to him shortly before his death in 1995. One of the last things he said to her was, “We made a difference, didn’t we?”

Yes, they did.

Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King compete against each other "Battle of the sexes" at the Houston Astrodome.

Bobby Riggs (below) and Billie Jean King compete in the “Battle of the Sexes” at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

(Associated Press)

A 2017 film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell introduced a new generation to the battle of the sexes and the role of royalty in elevating women’s status. But even before its release, the game had already secured a permanent place in history. King said rarely a day went by without people coming up to her to share stories about how her victory over Riggs dramatically changed her own path.

It’s another example of one of King’s favorite phrases: You have to see it to be it.

The sight of a strong, successful female athlete inspired women to pursue their own sports dreams. They may not have won Wimbledon, but the teamwork, leadership skills and poise they developed through sport have proven valuable in classrooms, boardrooms and everywhere else.

“Since that match, men have come up to me and said they had never really thought about their daughters until that day and thought, ‘Of course I want my daughter to have the same opportunities as my son.’ Why shouldn’t I?'” King said. “But they had never really thought about it specifically, and I think that helped.”

Billie Jean King holds up the winner's trophy after defeating Bobby Riggs at the Astrodome in Houston.

Billie Jean King celebrates with the winner’s trophy after defeating Bobby Riggs in the $100,000 Battle of the Sexes tennis match at the Houston Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

(Associated Press)

She recalled how then-President Obama told her he was 12 when he saw the game, which influenced how he treated his two daughters. “If it touches the hearts and minds of people like that, that’s good,” King said. “I knew it had a chance because it was about emotions. I knew people would feel emotional about their gender, the opposite gender, life and who deserves what.”

King, who was born in Long Beach, turns 80 on Nov. 22 but has no plans to slow down. In addition to the ownership of the Dodgers that she shares with her wife, Ilana Kloss, she has taken on the creation of a company that handles the business aspects of the Billie Jean King Cup. She also supports the new Women’s Professional Hockey League along with Mark Walter, the controlling owner of the Dodgers, and Walter’s wife, Kimbra.

She lives by a principle she discussed in her book: When you’re in the business of change, you have to be willing to play the long game. Although there is still inequality in sports and the world, she is willing to play this long game.

“We are not finished yet. I’m not done yet.” She said. “Everyone’s like, ‘What are you doing now that you’re old?’ I’m like, ‘Are you kidding?’ I’m working harder now than ever because you have to be patient and persistent and not give up.”

And 50 years from now, people will still remember the Battle of the Sexes because it was a turning point, not because of the feathers, gold pieces, and pigs of every kind.

Emma Bowman

Emma Bowman is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Emma Bowman joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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