With WTA also celebrating its 50th anniversary, Boardroom breaks down how women’s tennis got here, as well as what’s at stake in prize money for this year’s US Open.
Fifty years ago, the US Open became the first sporting event in history to award equal prize money for men and women competitors, and this momentous occasion has been the central theme of this year’s tournament. This feat could not have been achieved without the leadership and guidance of legendary tennis player Billie Jean King.
So how did the 12-time Grand Slam champion spearhead the equal pay charge? After winning the US Open in 1972, King rallied her fellow women’s tennis athletes to threaten a boycott of the event the next year unless the women’s champion received the same payout as the men’s winner. Later that year, the US Open announced that the paycheck on the women’s side would see an increase of $15,000, netting the women’s winner the same $25,000 prize as her male counterpart.
King was recently honored for her efforts — past and present — ahead of the second primetime match of the US Open at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night, with former First Lady Michelle Obama commending her for being an indomitable force in the tennis space.
“Billie Jean teaches us that when our rights hang in the balance, we all have a choice to make,” she said. “We can wait around and accept what we’re given. We can sit by silently and hope that someone else will fight our battles. Or, we can make our own stand. We can use whatever platforms we have to speak out and fight to protect the progress we’ve made and level the playing field for our daughters and their daughters.”
King was also recognized Friday evening at the Women’s Tennis Association’s 50th Anniversary Gala. The WTA was founded in the summer of 1973 when close to 60 players teamed up to give women’s professional tennis a stronger, unified presence. Headlined by King, some 50 WTA legends and current players walked the purple carpet before enjoying a program that paid tribute to five decades of champions and the enduring core principles on which the WTA was founded: equality and inclusion.
Boardroom caught up with some of the night’s biggest honorees and guests, all reflecting on what the 50th anniversary of equal prize money means to them.
The History Behind the Iconic Image
As King walked the carpet, a poignant image of her on the court at the 1972 US Open, back when she was a menace in competitive tennis, hung behind her for all in attendance to see. Looking back on the significant strides made in the sport over the last half-century, one couldn’t help but ask the now 79-year-old what advice she would give to the 29-year-old in that photo.
“I’m not done yet,” King affirmed. “That’s how I feel, even though I’m older. But I actually love that photo. I was the first player to ever have blue-colored shoes, I think. I know I was the first woman. That photo brings back a lot of memories that we all stuck together, and we were like a team. We just have to continue to prosper and it’s up to the younger generation. I think it’s important to know your history because the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself.
“More importantly and most importantly, you can shape the future of history. That’s why I was able to leave because I loved the history of tennis. I loved the players. I figured out I probably met a hundred years of champion players, mostly women. This is not just about me or us; this is about the future generations.”
Along with her wife, Ilana Kloss, King is part of the ownership group for NWSL club Angel City FC. The power couple is also working to establish a new professional women’s ice hockey league in North America.
Ensuring Equal Pay Remains a Serious Conversation
As someone who played close to around the same time as King, Chrissie Evert is no stranger to advocating for the betterment of herself and other female athletes. On the purple carpet, Boardroom asked the 18-time Grand Slam champ what lessons can be learned from the efforts of tennis players to ensure it translates across all sports with women players.
“I think about that a lot,” Evert responded. “The fact that Billie Jean was a tennis player and not a golfer, I think about that a lot because tennis catapulted to the No. 1 women’s sport in the world because she was the one that fought. She and the original nine — I should add them on — were the ones that really fought for sponsorship and equal prize money. It’s just the right thing to do.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t cross over to other sports very quickly, and I see that other sports are still struggling, although soccer has had some good news now that they’re equal with men. But when I look at basketball, there are still some sports that still really need a leader.”
To the Next 50 Years
Billie Jean King will go down in history as one of the most prolific activists of this generation. Eventually, the time will come for another to fill those difficult shoes.
Luckily, the next half-century of tennis is in good hands, as 19-year-old Coco Gauff is up for the challenge. The 2022 French Open finalist is not only a US Open favorite this year, but she also delivered a passionate address Friday in front of hundreds of attendees. Gauff’s reaction when asked how she plans to leverage her platform as her tennis career grows will leave you hopeful that the kids are alright.
“Using my platform is something that’s always been important to me, whether it’s social justice or such things as equal pay,” Gauff said. “I think that for the WTA to come this far in 50 years means a lot. And I know that I’m ‘the future,’ so hopefully, I can lead that kind of movement or help that movement go beyond equal play across all levels of the WTA.
“But I’m super happy and proud of where we are with the equal play amongst the Grand Slams. Billie Jean and the original nine, starting that $1 contract all those years ago, has led to so many things for women’s sports, and hopefully, tennis can continue to be the leader throughout that movement.”
2023 US Open Prize Money Breakdown
The total prize money and player compensation for this year’s US Open will be $65 million, an all-time record for the competition. That is about an 8% increase from the $60 million from last year. The entire jackpot for this year includes $3 million that will be awarded to the men’s and women’s singles champions and $700,000 for the doubles winners.
By comparison, Wimbledon offered around $56.5 million in prizes, the French Open about $54 million, and the Australian Open about $53 million.
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