The Enormous Legacy of Billie Jean King

By Jane Voigt

August 29, 2013 -- New York is a celebration. Lights. Noise. An epicenter of entertainment and emerging trends. 

The WTA has taken advantage of this stage to recognize, and celebrate, its 40-year anniversary. 

Billie Jean King, who moved heaven and earth out of a man's domain to secure an association that would support women's tennis, deserves the spotlight for this. In fact, she deserves a parade down Fifth Avenue with marching bands, floats, and jugglers tossing tennis balls six at a time.   

Without her initiative women's tennis may not have grown into its current multi-million dollar business. "'If we had not had Billie, I'm not sure we'd be the success we are today," Stacy Allaster, chairwoman and chief executive officer for the WTA, told The New York Times

A month after the Women's Tennis Association was founded, King's lobbying efforts bore fruit. "The USTA became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money to men and women," The Times reported. 

Then in September, she defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. No other tennis event since has managed to attract the number of people on hand that evening -- 30,000. The event has been maligned of late, suggesting in "The Match Maker," by Don Van Natta Jr on ESPN.go.com that Riggs conspired with the Mafia and 'fixed' the match. King, though, brushes aside these accusations any time they are raised. 

Whether influenced illegally, in those forty years the breadth of King's courage can be found in WTA player paychecks and lifestyles, although more hard work is needed.

Rosie Casals (left) and Billie Jean King at Family Circle Cup, 2012. Stadium Court at the Daniel Island site was named in honor of King, who along with nine other women, began the WTA in 1973. The first match played by these pioneering women was at Family Circle Cup, when it was held on Hilton Head Island. Prize money was $30,000, an unheard of amount for women at the time. Casals won that tournament, saying,
"We'd never played for that much." 

According to Forbes, Maria Sharapova earned more money than any other athlete on the planet: $29 million, in 2012. Six million came from prize money and $23 million from endorsements. Number two is Serena Williams, with a combined income of $20.5 million: $8.5 million in prize money and $12 million in endorsements. Number 3 on the list is yet another tennis player, Li Na. Her total earnings were $18.2 million, of which $3.2 million came from tournaments and $15 million from endorsements. 

In fact, 7 of the 10 top paid women athletes are tennis players. They have truly come a long way baby. The others are: No. 4, Victoria Azarenka; No. 7, Caroline Wozniacki; No. 8, Agnieska Radwanska; and No. 9, Ana Ivanovic. 

Discrepancies remain in just how equal is equal. Maria Sharapova has earned less career prize money than both Venus and Serena Williams combined, but she's one woman and has not been on tour as long as the Williams' sisters. However, she is behind the Williams' career prize money by two spots on the 'all-time' list. 

Venus and Serena are playing in their 15th U. S. Open -- the most appearances of any player. Sharapova, had she played, would have been making her 10th appearance in New York. Venus has been on tour for 19 years, turning pro in 1994. Sister Serena has been around for 18 years. Sharapova turned pro 12 years ago; however, she is 7 years younger than Venus. 

Prize money was probably less before Sharapova made the scene, which affected the gap in prize money. But when endorsement deals are added in, the difference in total income is stark. 

Looking just at 2012, Sharapova made nearly twice as much as Serena and Li Na combined in endorsements. Serena has cut back on endorsements, though, having switched portfolio interests toward investment. She and Venus own equity in the Miami Dolphins, for example. And, Serena invests in Home Shopping Network plus others.

Serena also contracts with Wilson Sports, Nike, Gatorade, and OPI, a manufacturer of nail products. 

The fashion industry, for one, has edged toward Sharapova more so than toward the Williams' sisters as marketing and its new buddy, promotion, spread their arms around the lucrative world of international tennis. 

According to her website, Maria's sponsors include: Cole Haan, 'a classic American brand devoted to making premium men's and women's footwear;' Evian; Head/Penn Racquet Sports; Nike; Porsche; Samsung; and TAG Heuer, a 'Swiss luxury watchmaker.' 

Within the last year, too, Sharapova introduced her own 'Sweet treat -- Sugarpova.' They are 'candy coated kisses that reflect the fun, fashionable, sweet side of international tennis sensation, Maria Sharapova,' promotes her site. The flavors are not your normal orange, raspberry, lemon and lime, but sporty, spooky, silly, smitten, and sassy. We get it … Sporty Sugarpova, Silly Sugarpova, etc. We certainly have seen Maria in her silly moods and she has been smitten with Grigor Dimitrov, of late. 

The cost for fans has skyrocketed as more sponsors step up support for tennis. As a result, everything associated with it has gone up: ticket prices; food at a venue; and memorabilia. The balloon won't burst, rest assured, as the demand for European, Asian and South American tennis stars expand internationally. 

How Venus, Serena and Maria elevated tennis
In his well shaped article for East Bay Express, "Oakland's Tennis Revolutionary," Joel Drucker suggested today that upward mobility could be at the crux of why good-performing juniors are not more numerous, adding another element to the equality equation. 

He intimated potentially good juniors, which could step in the tennis shoes of, let's say, Venus and Serena Williams, and in a few years, Maria Sharapova, may not be around. He concluded that because kids have more -- stuff -- they do not have the urge, sense, or drive to strive for what former champions have attained.

"'[But] in large part, what so many prior American champions possessed boils down to the broader sociological concept of upward mobility. If tennis in America often took place in affluent environments, its champions came from middle- and working-class backgrounds,'" wrote Drucker. 

He also suggested that "'in many instances at least one parent was an immigrant.'"

This holds true for Don Budge, a native of Oakland, Calif., and thus Oakland's tennis revolutionary. And it applies to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, children of immigrants. 

Drucker suggested that Sampras and Agassi possessed a 'sense of urgency' that is not apparent in today. 

"'Others -- such as [Bobbie] Riggs, [Arthur] Ashe, and [Jimmy] Connors -- were outsiders to the tennis establishment, and in their own distinct ways channeled that sense of exclusion into a competitive desire,'" Drucker wrote. 

Venus Williams and Serena Williams were raised in the ghetto of Compton, Calif. Maria Sharapova and her father, Yuri, arrived in the United States from Siberia with little to no money. 

Richard Williams and Oracene Price wanted their daughters to have a better life, away from the strife of inner city living. The same motivation holds true for Yuri Sharapova. 

These women knew nothing of affluent environments where tennis was predominantly played. They knew they had talent, or so their parents said, and if they worked hard they might have a crack at a good life. Since these women have excessive amounts of talent and used it to the peak of their abilities, they reap the awards. But they are not because of their endorsement contracts, investments, the number of homes they own, or tony stores they can shop in. 

Their names are stacked on lists and at the top of Forbes' list because Billie Jean King's vision cleared a path. That Sharapova makes more in endorsements appears to be yet another frontier inviting this generation of female, and male, tennis players. That a broader, deeper interpretation of equality lies in wait. 

Dr. Martin Luther King's speech from 50 years ago, August 28, "I Have a Dream," continues to be relevant.

That all people, 'Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last!' 

Venus Williams senses the need. "I think that is definitely something that makes me happy, to see young people doing positive things with their lives," she said yesterday, after losing her second round match. "I love seeing young girls come through. Tennis has done so much for me and my life and my family. What I do on court has been able to touch a lot of people. It makes me motivated to do more, and also makes me happy that a whole new set of people and demographics all over the world are being introduced to this game."

Billie Jean King continues to fight for equality, no matter the nuanced forms it takes. "'I want us to be out front on equality,'" she told The Times. 

Her footsteps still leave tracks. It's a matter of interest and motivation of who will walk in them and carve new ones. 


© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013