As the U.S. Open gets started today in New York City, the Grand Slam tournament is celebrating an important anniversary: the 50th anniversary of equal prize money for men and women, which was achieved largely thanks to the organizing efforts of Billie Jean King.
It doesn’t feel like 50 years to King. “It feels like 5 years sometimes,” she tells Town & Country in the President’s Box at Arthur Ashe Stadium ahead of the Open. “Other times it feels longer, but no. Of course, I’m always looking ahead anyway.”
The future is bright. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I can breathe a little bit,” King says, with regard to women’s sports. “I think we’re at a tipping point.”
While the Grand Slams in tennis have led the way in equal pay, other sports have lagged behind. In soccer, U.S. Women’s National Team finally secured equal pay to the U.S. Men’s National Team last year—in which players on both squads receive equal compensation, even though World Cup money remains unequal. (Federations can decide how to distribute prize money.) As King says, “The challenge is they got equal pay, but there’s less money for grassroots probably because of it, but that means we don’t have enough investment. Women are just starting to get the investment.” By allocating more money for equal pay, King implies, that money is being diverted from supporting basic levels of the sport.
Women’s sports are beginning to get significant investment, but still are nowhere near the money in men’s sports. For example, even though the U.S. is paying its players the same regardless of their gender, there’s still a deep chasm between the prize money for the Men’s World Cup ($42 million) versus the Women’s World Cup ($4.29 million). Or if we look at individual athletes, in basketball, the average NBA player earns around $5.3 million a year, which is 44 times what the average WNBA player earns (around $130,000 annually).
Still, King remains optimistic. Along with her wife Ilana Kloss, she is part of the ownership group for Angel City FC, a National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) team. They’re also working to develop a new professional women’s ice hockey league in North America. “It’s really important that women are invested in sports,” King says. “In the NWSL, the WNBA and all these [leagues], you’ll start to see more and more women owners. And men and women think there’s a lot of money in it for the future. For the first time ever, I think they actually think their investment’s going to make money over time, which they always did with the guys, whether the guys were going to make it [or not]. When you invested in men’s sports and lost everything, it was okay. But anytime you’d invest in women, they go, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re going to lose your ass.’ Well, guess what, they’ve also lost money over here. The more investment we get, the more chance we have to win, and not to fail. That’s just obvious.”
It’s not just 50 years of equal pay at the Open, but this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the women’s tour. “Fifty years is an amazing achievement for us, especially just what we’re fighting for,” top-ranked American women’s player Jessica Pegula said in a press conference ahead of the U.S. Open. “We have equal pay at the Slams, but it’s not everywhere—that’s a little bit of a misconception that maybe the more casual fan didn’t realize. That’s something that hopefully we can get to.”
Pegula, who was elected to the WTA Players Council two years ago, added that she and other players are “always working towards” equal pay. She continued, “We’re working towards getting women’s sports to get paid more, getting paid what they should be. Especially tennis, we’re a leading example almost because we’re the highest-paid female sport, which is a big deal. For us, we already think there’s so much more that needs to be done, and we’re at the top. I think we do feel, as an organization, probably some pressure to kind of lead the way. We saw what happened with women’s soccer, which I think was inspiring for us to see them fighting for that.”
Pegula added that she doesn’t feel pressure, but a responsibility. Equal pay, she says, is “something I want to give back to a sport that’s already given me so much. It’s a very exciting time in women’s tennis. I think that we are improving and we’re moving forward. Hopefully we keep seeing that, [and] keep pushing for what we believe in.”
This year’s U.S. Open is being touted a celebration of half a century of equal pay, but also a reminder of how far women’s sports can still go. “Sports is a platform,” King says. “We can help make the world a better place. I mean, we really can. It’s not just what we do on the court, it’s what we can do off the court to make this world a better place together.”
Emily Burack (she/her) is the news writer for Town & Country, where she covers entertainment, culture, the royals, and a range of other subjects. Before joining T&C, she was the deputy managing editor at Hey Alma, a Jewish culture site. Follow her @emburack on Twitter and Instagram.