‘It was a lot of hard work’: Thanks to Billie Jean King, USTA led the way on equal pay 50 years ago

Equal pay for women is one of the most pressing issues in modern American sports. Just last year, US Soccer finally announced that it would pay the hugely successful the women’s team is the same as the men’s team. Most US Olympic sports national governing bodies pay women and men equally, although the US Golf Association does not do so at its US Opens, nor does many of our professional sports, golf and basketball.

But tennis? It’s a completely different story, and an inspiring one. The US Tennis Association has been paying women the same prize money as men for 50 years at the US Open.

Yes, 50 years old. The US Open began paying women the same as men back in 1973. By comparison, within tennis only, the Australian Open did not receive equal prize money until the next century, 2001, while the French Open and Wimbledon faltered. until 2006 and 2007 respectively.

How did the USTA get so far ahead of everyone else?

“It was very hard work,” said the man who did most of it, tennis legend Billie Jean King.

In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, King said that the idea to fight for equal pay at the 1973 US Open came to her during her winning press conference a year earlier.

EQUAL PAYMENT: USWNT’s fight for equal pay is an achievement for all women

The US Open will celebrate Billie Jean King and 50 years of equal cash prizes.
The US Open will celebrate Billie Jean King and 50 years of equal cash prizes.

“In 1972, I won and got $10,000, and the men’s champion Ilie Năstase won and got $25,000,” she said by phone on Monday afternoon. “It was funny, so I said, ‘I don’t think the women will come back next year, we won’t come back in 1973 if we don’t get even prize money.’ I say this, but I just hope and trust that other players will agree with this at that moment.”

King co-owned several tournaments and was comfortable with the business side of her sport, so she had an idea.

“I knew that I should not just complain, but find a solution,” she said, “so I spoke to various sponsors and asked them if they would make up the difference in the total prize pool. I was a business woman and it was a business decision, so I knew that if I had sponsors who would pay more money, I hoped that it would make a difference, and it happened.

At the 1973 US Open, the men’s and women’s champions received $25,000 each.

To discuss this topic is appropriate today, not of all days: March 14, the day named by the National Committee on Equal Pay “Equal Pay Day”. This is a day that symbolizes how far into the new year women have to work to earn what men have earned by December 31st of last year. It’s also the day, almost in the middle of Women’s History Month, when the USTA decided to announce that a celebration of justice and 50 years of equal prize money will be the theme of the 2023 US Open, accompanied by artwork from the ’70s dedicated to King. .

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The USTA is also supporting a campaign to award the King a Congressional Gold Medal. Eleven male individual athletes and the 1980 U.S. Summer Olympic team, which was unable to compete due to the boycott of the Moscow Games, were honored. None of the athletes won a medal.

“The campaign is aimed at the members of Congress who ultimately make the decision,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said. “Who better for Billy to consider this year?”

King said: “I was surprised that an individual athlete didn’t get this. If I can start in a way that makes them think of other women, that’s great.”

Billie Jean King founded the Women's Tennis Association in June 1973.
Billie Jean King founded the Women’s Tennis Association in June 1973.

1973 was a significant year for women in sports. In addition to equal pay at the US Open, the Women’s Tennis Association was founded in June 1973 by King, one of the nine players that made up the WTA, also known as the “Original 9”.

It was also the year of King’s famous victory over self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes” in front of millions on national prime time television on September 20, 1973. Needless to say, the 50th anniversary of this event will not go unnoticed.

“I thought maybe we’d leave if I didn’t beat Bobby,” she said. “Title IX had just passed the year before and I was worried that the women’s sport would be in trouble if I didn’t win. I knew people would bet, husbands and wives, sororities and fraternities. It was very important, and all these years later, people still come up to me to tell me what it means to them.”

With so many anniversaries on the horizon, King acknowledged that “she’s probably appreciating it all for the first time. There was always something to do at that time, so I just kept going.”

Which explains the first word she thinks of when she thinks back to 1973.

“Fatigue is my first word,” she said. “This has been an important year, a pivotal year for tennis and for women in general. I just remember being exhausted the whole time. Like I said, when I sleep now, I’m still catching up with the 1970s.”

Editor’s Note: In 2008, USA TODAY Sports columnist Christine Brennan co-wrote Pressure Is a Privilege with Billie Jean King.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billie Jean King made sure the USTA was a leader in equal pay 50 years ago.


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