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An Audience With Billie Jean: Part I

Forty years ago today, Billie Jean King became the first female athlete to cross the $100,000 mark in season prize money earnings.

Published October 03, 2011 03:26

An Audience With Billie Jean: Part I
Billie Jean King

Forty years ago today, on October 3, 1971, Billie Jean King became the first female athlete to cross the $100,000 mark in season prize money earnings. The amount was roughly 10 times the average annual income in the US that year, or four times the cost of a new house; the milestone was reached at the Virginia Slims Thunderbird Classic, a hardcourt event in Phoenix, where King defeated Rosie Casals in the final for a $4,000 pay cheque. Amazingly, it was barely 12 months after the Original 9 had made their pioneering stand with Gladys Heldman in Houston - the perfect punctuation for the first full season of the groundbreaking Virginia Slims Circuit.

In the first of a two-part interview, Billie Jean discusses those heady days.

Tennis has entered the Open Era, but all is not well. Set the scene.
BJK: Around that time, '68 and '69, more and more tournaments were going to men-only. The writing was on the wall… it was getting so there was no place for the women to play. Men controlled all of the tournaments - as promoters and players - and they really didn't want us to play anymore because we took some of the prize money if we played. We were getting squeezed. I wanted us all, men and women, to be together. They looked at me like I must be joking… a couple of them said nobody would pay a dime to watch the women play. So that's what precipitated the events that followed.

What do recall of that iconic moment at the Houston Racquet Club, when the nine of you signed with Gladys Heldman and held up the $1 bills?
BJK: We had to take things into our own hands, but I wanted to do it in the most diplomatic and proper way possible. So I made a call to the president of the USLTA, Alaster Martin, and told him what we were about to do. I had been trying for two years to get them to do a tour for us. I said, 'You don't want to provide it, I hear you, but I didn't want you to read about this in the paper tomorrow without me calling you.' He just kept telling me it was against the rules and not to do it. Finally I went back to the group and said, 'Let's go, let's get this over with. Please!' It was excruciating. We were all scared… we had no idea what was going to happen. We just knew we had the dream, the vision. We wanted every little girl in the world to have the opportunity to play and if she was good enough, to make a living from tennis. That's what we were thinking about when we made that $1 contract.

How did you feel by the end of the Houston Invitational?
BJK: That event was really so tiny - eight players - but it ended up being a week of very important discussions. After the matches we'd go to Gladys Heldman's home and sit in a semi circle in her bedroom - it was huge - trying to figure out how we were going to shape the future. We knew that to really have a future, we had to have a tour, or a series of tournaments. My former husband, Larry and Dennis Van Der Meer were willing to try to mount a tour. The girls held a vote between them and Gladys and voted to go with Gladys. In reality, Larry and Dennis no more wanted to run a tour than put a man on the moon, but I think Larry felt it was important to have a vote. In fact, it was Larry who encouraged Rosie and me to approach Gladys even before Houston. He saw that she had the means, the understanding of the corporate world through her work as publisher of World Tennis, and the connections to help us.

What sort of things did you talk about in Gladys' bedroom?
BJK: We had to figure out how much prize money we'd need per week. So I asked each of the women what they'd received under the table as amateurs. It was difficult, because some of them didn't want to say anything about what they made, or didn't make. I was getting about $2,000 but some said they didn't receive anything - not even their plane ticket. We worked out our realistic market value at that time was about $10,000. Gladys was not in on a lot of this… we didn't want her in there. Other times, she was in on discussions a lot.

How much of the bigger picture did you see at the time?
BJK: Oh, we were also talking way beyond sport. We were talking about society, changes. You have to remember, we were just getting into the women's movement, we were hearing a lot every day, understanding the facts better… what we had, what we didn't have. We couldn't get a credit card in those days without a guy signing up for us.

How soon after Houston did it become apparent that a full circuit would be viable in 1971?
BJK: Gladys may have told us before we even left Houston. We started in January, so that left us three months to get organized. That we managed it was thanks to Gladys and her contacts. Also, Larry and I took on two tournaments with another four partners. The very first tournament was ours - the Virginia Slims of San Francisco at the Civic Auditorium. It was a great venue. That is now the Bank of the West Classic at Stanford. The other was the Billie Jean King Invitational at Long Beach City College. Having my skin in the game, I got to understand very quickly what it took to put a tournament together from the ground up. Later, we owned the Virginia Slims of Chicago - Larry said that if we bought tournaments it would create a market and they would start to have more value. But in the beginning we had no infrastructure, and it is really mindboggling that we got people to take the risks they did. And the reason is because of the title sponsor - because there was money up there.

After the stresses of Houston, how was the mood heading into the San Francisco event?
BJK: The mood was much better. The expectations were starting… we felt like it was our opportunity. The tournament in Houston was really a planning week for the future, getting together, taking that leap of faith - because if someone didn't just do it, nothing was ever going to happen. We were lucky there were nine of us. And there were players that would have been in the original group if they'd been in the States… people like Betty Stove, Francoise Durr and Ann Jones, who had to go home during that week we were in Houston and play in their national closed tournament. It was great to have them with us in from the beginning in '71.

Did you struggle with the idea the new circuit would be sponsored by a tobacco company?
BJK: When Gladys told us she'd got a cigarette company for that tournament in Houston, I thought, 'Oh no… that's a terrible message!' I don't smoke - I don't believe in it. But partly due to a change in advertising regulations, Philip Morris had the extra budget and they were looking for a way to spend it. So it was an opportunity for them and obviously for us. And you know what? Their people were unbelievable. Brilliant. They showed us total integrity at the time, and they're still my friends to this day.

How did the relationship work in practice? Besides sponsorship dollars, what did Virginia Slims bring to the table?
BJK: They brought infrastructure, in terms of personnel. They'd send five or six people to a tournament, so for local promoters, it meant that suddenly the headcount was doubled in the service area and public relations effort. And one very important thing they did was hire Ted Tinling to design and make our dresses. Every year we'd have a different color or theme. He'd make the dresses according to how he saw our personalities, and over the years that became a key part of our branding.

As players, how else did you benefit from their marketing expertise?
BJK: First of all, the Virginia Slims folks recognized that we had a human story to offer - they really wanted to make us into celebrities because they believed it was important that people felt they knew us. They made calls and created opportunities. We'd do PR like crazy: pro-ams, television, print. During the indoor tournaments I would be up till 2am doing interviews and then get up for a 6am radio show. We only had 16 player draws, we all pitched in and we were just beat. They also gave us media training - how to know when the press were baiting us, how to talk about other players, how to talk about other things besides forehands and backhands. It was PR 101… and we needed it. They'd send people along to press conferences with us. I can remember Rosie Casals and I did a press conference in Long Beach, where I'm from. In the end Rosie sat there and read a book because they kept talking to me. I was embarrassed, and said 'Can you please ask Rosie some questions!'

What were the other highlights for you, during that first season?
BJK: Gladys mounted a $40,000 tournament at the Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston during the summer. By that point we were focused on getting me over $100,000 in prize money for the year, so I would be the first woman athlete to achieve that. I knew I had to win the Houston tournament or I wasn't going to make it. It was some pressure for me personally, but more than anything it was about the message we wanted to send.

And after you subsequently passed the $100,000 mark in Phoenix, you received a call from the President?
BJK: That's right. President Nixon, also being from Southern California, had given me trophies at amateur tournaments and he followed my career. He was really proud, thrilled that I had done it. I took the call at Philip Morris's offices. I remember we did a big media day… I think I was wearing a paper crown. And that segued nicely into the next year. It was at the height of the women's movement - Title IX passed on June 23, 1972 - and it was just perfect timing. I played Bobby Riggs in '73, and we got a great contract with CBS. We were very fortunate culturally with the timing in this country and this world, and I think we probably created some of it.

The USLTA was actually pretty quick to drop its sanctions against you, but they set up a rival tour. How did that make you feel?
BJK: Can you imagine, after two years of pleading with them behind the scenes? So we have a tour and - oh, no - now there are two tours! It divided up the players, which was the worst thing that could have happened. So for me, the next goal was that we had to be together. We wanted the top talent playing against each other every week. Because of Philip Morris and their expertise, we were able to stay ahead of the curve. They had a lot more money than the USLTA, and I know Ellen Merlo and Joe Cullman did a lot to try and work it all out. Of course, it wasn't until 1974 that we were all together.

As the Slims circuit gathered steam, did you ever dream it would take so long before everyone was under the same banner?
BJK: My big concern was that if we stayed divided we both could fail - and then we'd end up with nothing again. So Rosie, Nancy, Frankie, Betty, Ann and I lobbied among the players all the time. We were somewhat ostracized by some, and we knew it was going to be a long haul. I also knew it was important for the national associations and Virginia Slims and the other promoters to work things out behind the scenes. On and off the court we were constantly thinking, working, lobbying. Once we'd made up our mind and had a goal, we'd go lobby like crazy.

What form did this lobbying take? How did you organize yourselves?
BJK: I'd say something like, 'Okay, Rosie, who are the two players you have the most influence over and get along with the best?' Often all this would take place in the locker room - we were still staying in private housing a lot of the time, not all at the same hotel, so we'd be split up at night. We'd have to create meetings on site or go to dinner. And if we were at a hotel we'd meet in someone's room and be up till 4 o'clock in the morning trying to strategize. We were exhausted. People ask me what I remember about it and I say being tired all the time! I think I averaged four hours sleep for three or four years.

How did you persuade people that women's tennis deserved attention?
BJK: You have to remember, we didn't have women sportswriters attend our press conferences, only men. But I grew up with a jock dad and my brother was a major league baseball player, so in a way I was in my element. It was tough, though, because they labeled us in ways guys would never be labeled. I decided to tell the media we were entertainers. I'd say, 'Listen guys, the best men could kill the best women. But we're just as good entertainment - sometimes better. Depends on the match.' And that made sense to people. We'd drive up to newspaper offices and pitch ourselves to the sports section. We also tried to get off the sports section, to the style section or some other. And if they didn't want to help, I'd ask if they had a stringer or an intern they could send out to talk to us. Sometimes then they'd feel sorry for us and say okay.

What was the craziest thing that happened in that first year?
BJK: We were all out in the streets, man, stopping the cars, pleading with people, giving out tickets. We were in Chattanooga wearing Davy Crockett hats… we'd see a station wagon full of kids and we'd stop them. All of us would do it, everyone helped. Anything to fill the seats, baby!

The playing conditions weren't always ideal, were they?
BJK: We'd use fuchsia balls you couldn't see, and sometimes the courts would be horrible. And of course we'd say, 'Gosh, the courts are great, the lighting is wonderful, everyone's been so good to us here.' I used to tell the players not to say anything bad about anything, because when we left, those people still had to live there. I'd tell them, 'Just remember, this is the beginning… say it's good!' And really, we knew it was - we'd been making $14 a day. We had it great, we were living large. Everything's relative to your frame of reference.

Looking past the challenges and frustrations of the time, do you now see the momentum you built was actually pretty incredible?
BJK: Yes. The interest in tennis was phenomenal at that time, and it just kept growing exponentially. We weren't competing with as many sports. It was great timing… let's face it, we were kind of lucky that all the stars were in alignment: Philip Morris, Gladys, the nine of us ready to take the first step and then have others join us to do everything we could to promote our sport. I mean, we killed ourselves, but we had a great sense of humor and we were able to keep laughing. I don't think we would have made it otherwise, because it helped us stay together through thick and thin.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which Billie Jean discusses her upbringing, the effect of tennis politics on her personal development, and her hopes for making the game even bigger.

Interview by Adam Lincoln

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