This month’s article from the McCormack Collection focuses on the aftermath of a monumental tennis match dubbed the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ that took place forty-three years ago.
In 1973, the United States was at the height of the feminist movement. Establishing equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women was the focus of the national conversation. As momentum built and legislation passed, many opposed the legitimacy that women should be given these resources. In an attempt to measure the legitimacy of women’s athletics, Bobby Riggs, a fifty-five-year-old former tennis pro, challenged the best female player in the world, twenty-nine-year-old Billie Jean King, to a nationally-televised five-set exhibition match with a winner-take-all prize of $100,000. Riggs proclaimed that he would win easily.
This event became the first televised athletics competition between a male and female. Before 30,472 spectators in the Houston Astrodome and an estimated television audience 50 million in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide, King won the event in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. The event not only became a milestone in public acceptance of women’s participation in athletics, but also captivated America ….so much so that in the aftermath of the match the public demanded to see more athletic competitions men and women. McCormack and IMG’s Trans World International soon provided it through the creation of a TV show called the Challenge of the Sexes.
Two years following the tennis match, the Challenge of the Sexes show broke ground in Mission Viejo, CA. The event became a televised ten-part series on CBS. It involved 30 of the top male and female athletes from 12 different sports, in which men and women would compete against each other for the first time. The events pinned Laura Baugh and Jane Blalock vs. Hale Irwin and Doug Sanders in golf, and Jerry West vs. Karen Logan in basketball. The tennis event pitted future Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade vs. Bjorn Borg, and Nastase vs. Evonne Goolagong.
The tennis match was the first event contested. The star-studded match drew overflow crowds that surpassed 5,000 fans within the facility. The fans and the public witnessed Borg defeat Wade, but Goolagong defeat Nastase. Several of the events, including tennis, had handicaps assigned to equalize the competitors. But what the public saw might as well have been the beginning of a new trend in sport. Through McCormack and the TWI production of the Challenge of the Sexes, it was clear, with a fair handicap system, women could compete against men on the amateur or professional level.
This article is accompanied by documents from the launch of the Challenge of the Sexes, including the press release and the competition schedule.