Jim O'Donnell: King-Riggs "Battle of the Sexes" pushed TV sports into a brave new world
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.)
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.
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• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at email@example.com. All communications may be considered for publication.