Jim O'Donnell: King-Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" pushed TV sports into a brave new world

  • Billie Jean King raises her arms after defeating Bobby Riggs, getting ready to jump over the net, in the "Battle of the Sexes" at the Houston Astrodome in September 1973. ABC's "Battle of the Sexes" propelled a court of gender interface into an expanded new age of TV sports.

    Billie Jean King raises her arms after defeating Bobby Riggs, getting ready to jump over the net, in the "Battle of the Sexes" at the Houston Astrodome in September 1973. ABC's "Battle of the Sexes" propelled a court of gender interface into an expanded new age of TV sports. Associated Press File Photo

Updated 9/17/2023 10:36 AM

AS A LANDMARK TV EVENT, the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" remains on the same high pop cultural plane as the first appearance of the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan."

This week marks the 50th anniversary of that memorable tennis event -- Thursday night, September 20, 1973.


Few grasped the complete societal implications of the electric exhibition. Still, a whole lot tuned in.

For context, prior to "The Battle," none of the three legacied American television networks had ever featured a woman professional in a prime-time, competitive athletic event.

Title IX was one year old. There were no women in the United States Senate and a mere 16 in the House of Representatives. The idea of a woman journalist in a major-league sports press box was preposterous.

ROONE ARLEDGE AND ABC BEAMERS later estimated that their coverage reached a global audience of 90 million. Howard Cosell anchored. Frank Gifford worked the sidelines. Analyst Rosie Casals flashed feminist fangs from net to nation --- and at least half of the audience liked her attitude.

An announced crowd of 30,472 at Houston's Astrodome included a sub-spectrum of celebrities ranging from George Foreman and Jim Brown to Micky Dolenz and "Hollywood Squares" staple Jo Ann Pflug. (Rose Marie must not have been available.)

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Riggs -- age 55 and close to three decades past his prime as a dink-and-whiz champ -- made himself the perfect chauvinist pig. The hustler set a properly derisive tone by repeatedly quoting Kinky Friedman's male-supreme country snorter, "Keep Your Biscuits in the Oven (and Your Buns in Bed)."

King was a reigning Wimbledon champion on a mission. Four months before, Riggs had walloped Margaret Court in a grand setup for the big night.

THE TWO-HOUR MATCH DEVOLVED into the anti-climactic. ABC used a numbing one-camera shoot for on-court action. King was aggressive and nimble while winning in straight sets of 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Some legend holds that Riggs placed massive bets against himself (and was foolish if he didn't).

King -- who will be 80 years old on November 22 -- has since said: "There literally has not been a day in my life when someone has not mentioned that night to me. The breakthrough that it represented far outweighed the nature of the event."

NO FEWER THAN TWO MOVIES have been spawned by the match. In 2001, ABC aired the in-house "When Billie Beat Bobby," starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver.


In 2017, Hollywood toed the service line with Emma Stone and Steve Carell fronting "Battle of the Sexes." But the biopic missed at the box office and double-faulted with zero Oscar nominations.

"Ed Sullivan" launched the Beatles as a global phenomenon.

With strains of the same pop circus overture, ABC's "Battle of the Sexes" propelled a new court of gender equality into an expanded age of TV sports.


Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit opened their second season on Prime Video's "Thursday Night Football" with PHL-MIN to start Week 2. The word count of the deft Michaels might be the lowest among A-team NFL network announcers, which is refreshing. (Jim Nantz is No. 2.; Among analysts, Cris Collinsworth gets the dubious Professor Gabby Award.) ...

Deion Sanders remains riding a remarkable media power surge: Prime Video announced that the short run "Coach Prime, Season 2" will drop on Dec. 7. "Prime" may some day run for the U.S. Senate -- if he stays anywhere long enough to establish residency. ...

Predictably, the first regular-season game day of the Bears on ESPN-AM (1000) sounded cheap and cheesy. Granted, local radio rights in The League are no longer as valuable as they once were. But the AM-1000 inaugural underscored that Good Karma's Craig "Captain Kid" Karmazin has few resources and little creative spark in Chicago. ...

For truly dead programming this month, it's tough to swing lower than NBCSCH's "White Sox Post-Game Live." Even poor Ozzie Guillen comes across like Paul Rodriguez playing a cruise ship filled with funeral organists. ...

The controlled frenzy surrounding the possibility of the Cubs in the NL postseason comes with a deflating reality: If the swerving Wigglies get there, they then have to try and beat a quality opponent. Maybe Leon Durham can come out of retirement to blow a ground ball and at least make it memorable. ...

As expected, Jim Rose signed off after 41 years at WLS-Channel 7 Friday night. His departure marks the exit of the last link to the unparalleled golden age of Johnny Morris and Tim Weigel as Chicago TV sports kingpins. (As Irv Kupcinet might have deadpanned, "Those were the days, my friend.") ...

Patrick Sandusky is settled in for his first full season as Bulls VP/comm. The well-traveled PR veteran was a key media point person for Pat Ryan's failed try at landing the 2016 Summer Olympics for Chicago. (Which would have been an unmitigated civic disaster.) ...

Johnny Burke is quietly wondering which will come first for Blackhawks manger baby Connor Bedard: 150 goals or the right to drink legally in Illinois (on July 17, 2026). Wayne Gretzky -- natch -- had the most by age 21 (WHA and NHL) with 167; Sidney Crosby tallied 99. ...

And Teresa Hanafin, from the Dorothy Parker side of the Charles River: "Aaron Rodgers shouldn't have refused to get that Achilles vaccine."

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com. All communications may be considered for publication.

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