20 September 2014

Reflections on "The Battle of the Sexes"

Bobby Riggs was a pro tennis star who was at the of his game in the late 1930s and the 1940s.  But Riggs is most remembered for his battle of the sexes.  In 1973, the 55 year old Riggs came out of retirement to play a couple of matches against much younger female tennis stars.

Originally, Riggs wanted to play Billie Jean King but King initially refused.  So Riggs arranged a match with Margaret Cox, who was at the time the top female player in the world.  Riggs achieved easy victory in what was dubbed "the Mother's Day Massacre" by using lots of drop shots and lobs which kept the 30 year old Cox off balance.   In the national limelight, Riggs played up his chauvinism and taunted female players over his victory over "the lesser sex".

The Mother's Day Massacre caused the 29 year old King to change her mind and agree to play Riggs.  The Battle of the Sexes was played on September 20th, 1973 at the Houston Astrodome before a record setting crowd of 30,472 spectators and a television audience estimated at 90 million.  King won the $100,000 winner take all prize on 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.  This Battle of the Sexes elevated Women's Tennis in America , fueled the politically correct womens' liberation movement and highlighted the Title IX law.

But there was more to the story than athletic prowess on the court.  The Battle of the Sexes was lots of show business.  Billie Jean King entered the Astrodome in a chair held by four bare-chested muscle men dressed like Egyptian slaves, ala Cleopatra.  Not to be outdown, Bobby Riggs entered the Astrodome on a rickshaw drawn by scantily dressed models.  Before the match, Riggs gave King a giant lollypop and King offered rigs a piglet.  This spectacle seems akin to the WWF rather than the noble sport of Wimbledon.

Behind the scenes, there were efforts to augment the women's liberation propaganda.  Billie Jean King insisted that ABC Sports drop tennis color commentator Jack Kramer because he was critical of  King and the 26 year age advantage.  Prior to the match, King proclaimed: "He [Kramer] doesn't believe in women's tennis. Why should he be part of this match? He doesn't believe in half of the match. I'm not playing. Either he goes – or I go."

There has been some speculation through a 2013 ESPN Outside the Lines feature which alleged  that Bobby Riggs might have thrown the match in exchange for the mob cancelling Rigg's debts.   Rigg's history as a hustler lends some credence to the gambling connection, as Riggs won a tremendous sum in 1939 by betting on himself to win at Wimbledon.  But Riggs supposedly took a polygraph to prove that he did not prove the match.  Ironically, Jack Kramer, the tennis voice that King silenced for the "Battle of the Sexes", insisted that Billie Jean King won the match fair and square.

The spectacle, the underlying themes and the promotion of "the Battle of the Sexes"  should be instructive to understand how sports are marketing themselves through controversy, guided messaging and chasing a profit as much as excellence on the field of play.

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