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 American sports today. Just last year, US Soccer finally announced that they will pay the highly successful women’s national team the same as the men’s team. Most national governing bodies of US Olympic sports pay women and men equally, although the US Golf Association does not have its US Opens, and many of our pro sports do not. including golf and basketball.
But tennis? That’s quite another story, and an exciting one. The US Tennis Association has been paying the same prize money to women as men at the US Open for 50 years.
Yes, 50 years. The US Open started paying men the same as women back in 1973. For a direct comparison within the sport of tennis, the Australian Open didn’t receive nearly equal money until the next century , 2001, while the French Open and Wimbledon moved to 2006 and 2007, respectively.
How did the USTA get so far ahead of everyone else?
“It was a lot of hard work,” said the person doing most of it, tennis legend Billie Jean King.
In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, King said the idea to fight for equal pay at the 1973 US Open came to her during her victory press conference the previous year.
Equal Pay: The USWNT’s fight for equal pay is an achievement for all women
“In 1972, I won and got $10,000, and the men’s champion, Ilie Nastase, won and got $25,000,” she said by phone Monday afternoon. “This was ridiculous so I said, ‘I’m not thinking the ladies will be back next year, we’re not going to be back in 1973 unless we get the same prize money.’ I’m saying this but just hoping and hoping that the other players will go with it at that point.”
King was a part owner of two tournaments and felt comfortable within the business side of her sport, so she had an idea.
“I knew I had to not only complain, but find solutions,” she said, “so I talked to different sponsors and asked them if they would make up the difference in total prize money. I was a business woman and this was a business decision, so I knew that if I had some sponsors to pay more money, I hoped that would make a difference, and he did.”
At the 1973 US Open, the men’s and women’s champion each received $25,000.
It is appropriate to discuss this topic today of all days: March 14, the day designated “Equal Pay Day” by the National Committee on Pay Equity. This is the day that symbolizes how long in the new year women have to work to earn what men earned before December 31 last year. It’s also the day, nearly halfway through Women’s History Month, that the USTA has chosen to announce that celebrating equity and the 50th anniversary of equal awards will be the theme of the 2023 US Open, alongside work- art from the 70s celebrating the King. .
DON’T miss a minute: Follow our sports newsletter for daily updates
The USTA is also supporting a campaign to award the King with the Gold Medal of Transport. Eleven individual male athletes and the 1980 US Summer Olympic team who were unable to compete due to the country’s boycott of the Moscow Games have received the honor. No individual female athlete has won the medal.
“The campaign is aimed at members of Congress who will make the final decision,” said USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier. “Who better than Billie to be considered this year?”
King said, “I was surprised that an individual sportsman didn’t get it. If I can start it so they think about other women, that’s great.”
The year 1973 was a big year for women in sport. In addition to equal pay at the US Open, the Women’s Tennis Association was founded in June 1973 by King, one of nine players who made up the WTA, also known as the original 9.
This was also the year King won straight sets against self-described male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” in front of millions on prime-time national TV on September 20, 1973. No needless to say, the 50th anniversary of that event will not go unnoticed.
“I thought we might leave if I didn’t beat Bobby,” she said. “Title IX had just passed the year before, and I was worried that women’s sports would be in trouble if I didn’t win. I knew people would make bets, husbands and wives, sororities and brothers. It was such a big deal and all these years later, people still come up to me to tell me what it meant to them.”
With so many anniversaries on the horizon, King acknowledged that she is “probably appreciating everything for the first time ever. Back then, there was always more to do, so I kept going. “
Which explains the first word she thinks of when she remembers 1973.
“The first word I say is tired,” she said. “It was a fantastic year, a hugely important year for tennis and women in general. I remember being tired all the time. As I’ve said before, when I sleep in now, I’m still waking up from the 1970s.”
Editor’s note: In 2008, USA TODAY Sports columnist Christine Brennan co-authored the book “Pressure is a Privilege,” with Billie Jean King.
This article first appeared on USA TODAY: Billie Jean King made sure USTA led the way on equal pay 50 years ago