‘Billy Jean King laces up her skates’

Billy Jean King joins forces with Taylor Heise, the top draft pick in the PWHL (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

Billy Jean King, the tennis legend and so much more, was in Toronto this month to help launch the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL).

If King’s starring role in the PWHL event seems strange to you, you’ve missed half a century of sports history. On Sept. 18, 1973, King handily beat Bobby Riggs – a harsh critic of women’s tennis – in the “battle of the sexes” showdown played in front of 30,000 spectators at the Houston Astrodome.  

By then, King was already fighting for equal pay for women’s tennis players. At the 1973 US Open, organizers met her demands. The 2023 US Open, held at the Billy Jean King Tennis Center in New York, celebrated the 50th anniversary of equal pay.

King, 79, knows there are victories yet to be won in the battle for fair treatment of women in sports, which helps explain why she took part in the first PWHL draft in Toronto. (Players were drafted for six teams. For now, they won’t draw salaries that remotely compare to those of NHL Players.)

But King’s career created a guide for getting from here to there. First, she generated buzz by forming the Women’s Tennis Association in June 1973, and convincing her eight colleagues in the fledgling group to hold fast to the demand for equal pay. Then she convinced the US Open to see the light, then she beat Riggs, then she kept at it for 50 years. (Today, the WTA’s 2,500 players compete for $150 million or so in prize money per year.)

At this year’s US Open, the marquee final was held between Belarusian power-hitter Aryna Sabalenka and American teenager Coco Gauff, who uses guile, footspeed, and all-court tennis to wear down opponents. Gauff won. The match was riveting.  The men’s final was another straight-sets victory by Novak Djokovic. Ho. Hum.

So here’s the thing. Once there is money in women’s sports, and girls eyeing sports as a career, and fans in the arenas, great things happen. As this year’s World Cup showed, women’s soccer – once dominated to the point of embarrassment by US teams – is now a skilled, competitive international game.

In the CrowsNest, we’re cheering for similar success for women’s hockey and the WPHL. The league would make a good start by inviting Billy Jean, who serves on the WPHL board, to drop the first puck at its first game in January.