In a New York City conference room packed with amateur and professional athletes, tennis legend, Billie Jean King, described her nearly five decade journey of championing for equal rights in sports.
Her remarks were a far cry from a “when I was your age” speech to the attendees of the Women’s Sports Foundation’s first-ever Athlete Leadership Connection – a program designed to help athletes become stronger leaders in their sport and transition into successful post-competition careers.
Rather, King’s fiery energy mirrored a union town hall meeting.
She recounted the pivotal moment of the birth of women’s professional tennis in 1970 – describing it as nine women who were willing to cross the line in the sand and try to do something different. Facing suspensions from major tournaments including the US Open and Wimbledon, King recalled how pushing for change was their “moment of truth.” Together they were either going to fall flat on their faces or make something happen.
A few years later, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) was founded. Fast-forward to 2015, it is a thriving professional tennis tour. Last year, the WTA signed a 10-year $525 million media agreement with PERFORM, and today players compete annually for $130 million in prize money.
Indeed, the pioneers made something happen.
King’s legacy not only lives on through the WTA but also the Women’s Sports Foundation, which she founded in 1974.
“It is the job of the Women’s Sports Foundation – why Billie [Jean King] founded us 41 years ago – to be the voice of women and women in sports,” said Deborah Slaner Larkin, Women’s Sports Foundation CEO.
“To say ‘no’ we should not have to decide who to treat better – our sons or our daughters – we should treat them the same. They should have the same equal opportunity. Our job is to speak out…to be the conscience of the whole sports industry.”
As the foundation’s honorary chair, King continues to advocate for athletes, while counseling them to speak up and be leaders.
During the Athlete Leadership Connection – she challenged the participants to organize, promote their sports and decide how they can make them better.
For instance, when King asked an athlete what she wanted for her sport – whether she wanted to push it in a new direction or if she’s happy with where it is going.
The athlete responded that she felt “lucky” to be in her position.
“Oh, that is what they want,” King asserted. “You are supposed to be so lucky that you are getting these crumbs.”
She explained that when it comes to employment and money, women rarely negotiate. As a result, they lose out on more than $500,000 by the end of their lifespan compared to men.
“Women are also hired on performance, men are hired on potential,” said King while referencing a recent Wall Street Journal report on gender bias and women in the workplace.
King emphasized to the athletes that her crusade for equality was never just about making money. Instead, her goals centered on improving tennis and gaining exposure for the sport.
“The reason I wanted a lot of money in our sport is because I knew people would pay attention,” said King.
“It is the one thing everybody understands. Whether they work in a factory or whether they are a CEO – everyone understands money. That is the reason I felt it was so important to have money in the game. We got a lot of attention because we started making money.”
For King, attention directed toward women in sports should be an everyday matter. As an example, she is frustrated by the focus placed on the US national soccer team and not the professional women’s soccer league.
“Everybody talks about the women’s soccer winning and the ticker tape. But that is not what is important – the league is important,” King said. “The every day – not every four years. All of the emphasis is put on the every four years. You’ve got to make a living every day.”
Yes, every day!
Negotiating is every day. Facing your fears is every day. Not settling for less pay is every day.