50 Years Ago, She Took a Stand, and It Worked

Billie Jean King demanded female players at US Open earn the same as men
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 26, 2023 2:20 PM CDT
50 Years Ago, She Took a Stand, and It Worked
Tennis legend Billie Jean King poses with Spain players at the end of the Women's World Cup soccer final between Spain and England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. Spain won 1-0.   (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

When Billie Jean King won the US Open in 1972, she didn't make the usual remarks about hoping to win again. Instead, she threatened to not play at all the next year—and added that no other women would, either. That's because she earned $10,000 for her championship, $15,000 less than Ilie Nastase won for his. "I said: 'This really stinks,'" King recalled, per the AP. "And, of course, deep down in my heart of hearts, in my brain, I'm going, 'I haven't talked to them yet. You sure you're doing the right thing here?' This is the other voice in my head: 'What if they don't agree with you on this? I think they do, because we talk about it all the time, but we didn't talk about this move.' And so I said, 'The heck with it. I don't think we'll be back.'"

That led the US Tennis Association to make the 1973 US Open the first sporting event to offer equal prize money to female and male competitors. The 50th anniversary of that achievement is being celebrated this year during the Grand Slam tournament staged at the New York City facility that now bears King's name. "We might take that for granted now, but the USTA was so far ahead of the rest of the sports world and society in 1973," said Stacey Allaster, who in 2020 became the first female US Open tournament director. "Simply no question that Billie's courage and her leadership ... opened the door for me."

King was aware of a survey that had been conducted at the US Open around that time showing that female players enjoyed more popularity than even they suspected. However, she believed that didn't matter unless they were given the same paychecks, so she took it upon herself to seek out sponsors she hoped would make up the $15,000 difference. "If I can bring in the money, then how are they going to say no?" King thought. Bristol Myers Squibb told her it wanted to pay the entire sum, and it was announced that summer that both the men's and women's US Open champions would receive $25,000.

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This year, the US Open winners will each receive $3 million, with total player compensation rising to $65 million. Tennis players accounted for seven of the 10 highest-paid women's athletes in 2022, according to Forbes. "I think the presentation of the sport and equal prize money being secured 50 years ago has come a long way as to why women in tennis have achieved what they've achieved," said Lew Sherr, the executive director of the USTA. King will take part in a ceremony Monday night for the 50th anniversary of the gains that came from her threat. "So taking the chance," she said, "I'm glad I did."

(More Billie Jean King stories.)

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