It was the first and only tennis match to attract a Super Bowl-sized audience. Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ match on Sept. 20, 1973, drew nearly the same number of U.S. television viewers as the Miami Dolphins-Minnesota Vikings matchup four months later. Still, few remember the football game. Everybody remembers the Battle of the Sexes.
More than a TV event, it was a giant cultural “happening.” Such stars as Glen Campbell, George Foreman and Jim Brown were in attendance at the Houston Astrodome, as was a live pig (King’s pre-match gift to Riggs) and a human-sized Sugar Daddy lollipop (Riggs’ gift to King). “There were handsome gladiators with no outerwear, nubile maidens with no underwear, zillions of celebs ranging from out-of-work Tarzans to out-of-work Monkees,” Sports Illustrated‘s Curry Kirkpatrick wrote of the scene.
Multiple Battles of the Sexes have been restaged since then, including Jimmy Connors’ 1992 win over Martina Navratilova, but none have had anywhere near the same impact. Not even Donald Trump was able to revive the magic; King says the president tried for more than a decade to mount a showdown between Serena Williams and John McEnroe: “It never came to fruition because the only thing Serena would have to gain is money if she beat him, but if she loses somehow …”
At the Astrodome, of course, King defeated Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. According to the champ, now 74, the victory could not have come at a more critical time for feminism. “We were a great example of the women’s movement,” King says of women’s professional tennis of the 1970s. “Women still couldn’t get a credit card without the signature of a guy.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.