She’s most well known as a sports icon, the holder of 39 Grand Slam titles and the equality role model who beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” But, Billie Jean King has spent more of her life as an entrepreneur than as a professional tennis player. She spoke with Tom Naratil, Co-President Global Wealth Management and President Americas, UBS, about lessons from the court that apply to business, and the role of business executives in the fight for equality at this year's US Open.
King’s first foray into business came in the late 1960s, shortly after tennis went from amateur to professional status. “That’s when we finally got a check, instead of a $45 gift voucher,” she laughs. To support the sport, she and her husband at the time invested all of their savings to hold a tennis exhibition in Oakland, California.
“[The first year], we actually made money! So we did it again, and we lost money, because it rained!” Undeterred, the Kings went onto be part of the original Virginia Slims Series and ended up owning four tournaments.
She attributes the acumen she gained from being an entrepreneur to helping her get equal prize money for women at the US Open in 1973. “We had owned the tournament for a couple of years. I understood that what counts is bringing money to the table.”
Ahead of a meeting with US Open Tournament Director Billy Talbert, King approached companies to step up their sponsorship. In addition to “bringing money to the table,” King went to the meeting also armed with data – a survey of US Open attendees that showed strong support for women players. “So I left him [with that]…and then they announced it, equal prize money.”
King would go on to hold 12 singles titles, 16 in women's doubles, and 11 in mixed doubles. But despite a long career on the court, King’s retirement from tennis was not difficult because she transitioned straight into working with World TeamTennis (WTT), a mixed-gender league she co-founded. “I knew what I wanted to do was go help WTT, because it’s about equality. It’s got men and women equally on a team.”
Today, King and her partner Ilana Kloss are part owners of the LA Dodgers baseball team.
She founded Billie Jean King Enterprises, a marketing and representation agency. She also runs the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative (BJKLI), a non-profit focused on issues impacting equality and inclusion in the workplace. The BJKLI brings together leaders from a range of industries to have dialogue on the state of equality.
What role does she think executives have in the fight for equality? Corporations have opportunities, but also responsibilities, she says.
"CEOs have always talked about shareholders, but now they’re talking about community as well. I’d like all [those] with exceptional power within companies to make it right for everyone, not just by gender but by race and by other things.”
The path to equality may not be linear, King understands. But something she learned from tennis that applies in business and activism is that you may not win every time but you keep going. “That’s what sports teaches you. Just let go. Keep going. Next time. [In business], billionaires, if you really listen to their stories, they’ve lost everything, made billions again, lost billions, made billions again. You’ve got to have the right gut for it.” The crowd chuckles. “I’m not kidding,” says King without missing a beat. “I was serious. Don’t you think?”