What the WTA's road from $1 contracts to $4.4 million paydays teaches other women's sports

“The USLTA needs the girls more than the girls need them."

Welcome to  Power Plays, a newsletter for people who are sick of hearing bullshit excuses, and ready to see equality for women in sports.

I’m Lindsay Gibbs, your captain on this journey. I’m so glad that you’re here. My email is lindsay@powerplays.news. I look forward to hearing from you, as we work together to build Power Plays into a true, well, power player in this field. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

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I am so excited about this edition, as it’s a bit different. I’m going full History Lesson on you, and wrap our main topic, archives, and motivational quotes all together in one neat bow. (I’ve got to admit, it’s fun being the one that makes the rules.)

Plus, it’s all about women’s tennis, which is my love.

We’re going to examine the WTA’s journey from $1 contracts to the biggest payday in tennis history. Then I talk with Julie Heldman, one of the trailblazers of professional women’s tennis (!!!), about what other women’s sports leagues can learn from the Original 9.

The big question: Should women’s pro sports operate independently, or are they better off operating within power structures that were established for men’s sports?

Before we go any further, I want to thank you so much for your support so far. It has meant the world to me. If you’re enjoying Power Plays, please tell someone about it!

Don’t take Ash Barty’s $4.42 million check, the largest in tennis history, for granted

Last week, Australian Ash Barty — the No. 1 tennis player in the world and French Open champion — won the WTA Finals, a marquee year-end round-robin tournament featuring the top eight players in women’s tennis from that season. Her prize? A whopping $4.42 million. It was the biggest payday in tennis history, men’s or women’s.

Tennis has long been leading the way for women’s sports, but this was the first time the WTA actually surpassed the ATP at comparative tournaments. (The total prize money for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen was $14 million; the equivalent men’s tournament, the ATP Finals in London, only offers $9 million in prize money, though earlier this year it was announced in 2021 the ATP Finals will move to Turin, and the prize money will increase to $14.5 million. Because of course.)

I think there are a few reasons why this marquee paycheck in women’s sports flew a bit under the radar — first and foremost being that it happened in Shenzhen, China, just across the border from Hong Kong, where far more pressing matters deserve our attention.

But I also think we all have a tendency to take the financial success of the WTA for granted. And friends, that is a foolish thing for us to do.

Women’s tennis faced so many of the roadblocks that the rest of women’s sports are dealing with right now, and there are lessons to be gleaned from the way they bypassed so many of those barriers by striking out on their own.

So, let’s take a journey back in time, shall we?

“I think I could have envisioned $1,400”

A quick primer, for those unfamiliar with the origin story: The WTA was founded in 1973, but its precursor was the Virginia Slims Circuit, which began in 1970 when nine women’s tennis players signed $1 contracts to mark their separation from the established tennis organizations, which were not prioritizing women.

Those women are referred to as the Original 9. 

On Tuesday evening, I spoke with Julie Heldman, a member of the Original 9 and author of Driven (A Daughter’s Odyssey).  When I asked her whether she dreamed of $14 million 39 years ago, when she signed that $1 contract, she laughed. 

“I think I could have envisioned $1,400,” Heldman said. “Fourteen million was not in my wheelhouse. It was not anything I knew.”

“The men wanted their own tournaments”

Tennis was historically a sport where men and women played the same tournaments. But when the sport clumsily moved from an amateur to a professional model starting in 1968, women were left behind.

"By the middle of 1970 there were almost no tournaments available for women professional players,” Julie said. “The men wanted their own tournaments. The men players didn't want the women there, even though there had been decades of joint tournaments. And it was getting worse.”

She said men’s tennis players — even ones that are highly-respected figures, known for their upstanding character — would, quite literally, tell their female counterparts to get back in the kitchen. 

“It was the living out of prejudice,” Julie said. 

When there were joint tournaments, the pay gap between men and women was astronomical. Things hit a tipping point in 1970 when Jack Kramer announced the prize money for the Pacific Southwest Championships would be 12:1 in favor of the men.  

Billie Jean King and other greats of the time approached Gladys Heldman, Julie’s mother, who ran the successful World Tennis Magazine. They needed her help. Gladys — an absolute powerhouse — organized a nine-player Houston Women’s Invitational, and bring Virginia Slims on as a sponsor.

“You’ve heard of women’s lib. This is women’s lob.”

At first, it seemed the women would have the support of the U.S. Lawn and Tennis Association (USLTA — which today, is just the USTA). But at the last minute the organization changed its mind, and said anyone who played the Houston Invitational would be suspended from the USLTA.

“They said, ‘Well, you women can have a tournament, but it'll have to be an amateur tournament and you can take money under the table,’” Julie said.  “That was their idea how to deal with us. So it became clear that we were on our own. The association that was supposed to be managing us was harming us.

(If you read the first issue of Power Plays, that refrain will sound awfully familiar.)

Some women’s tennis players were too afraid of the consequences to participate in the Houston tournament. But the Original 9 stood strong, and prior to the tournament, they signed $1 contracts with Gladys. The USLTA suspended them the next day.

“I hope you will agree that the women are not fighting the USLTA,” Gladys Heldman said at the time. “They are just protecting themselves. You’ve heard of women’s lib. This is women’s lob.”

“The USLTA needs the girls more than the girls need them”

From there, the Virginia Slims Circuit really took off. Julie admits that there was a level of destiny to it all. They had what she calls “The Holy Trinity:” Gladys, Billie Jean King, and Virginia Slims. 

Her mother was an expert saleswoman and absolute workhorse who had relationships with so many in the business and tennis community because of her work at World Tennis Magazine. Billie Jean King was a charismatic, outspoken, fearless star who won everything in sight and wasn’t afraid to take on the Powers That Be.

“There’s no trouble for us,” King said in 1972, during another dispute between the USLTA and the women’s circuit. “The USLTA needs the girls more than the girls need them.”

Virginia Slims made it all possible, though. In 1970, the government banned cigarette ads on television and radio. So the company needed a new place to invest its marketing budget. It was controversial; everyone knew how dangerous cigarettes were at the time. But — and yes, I do recognize the irony of this statement — it was a lifeline for women’s tennis.

“We sold our soul to the devil,” Julie said. “And they saved us.”

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to us”

So, how did this all go over? Well, this is where it gets fun, and we get to look through the archives.

As this New York Times article from January 17, 1971 shows, the USLTA did not handle it well!

“Women’s Lib may be fine along Fifth Avenue, but Women’s Lob, as the new professional tennis tour has become known, will not dictate policy to the United States Lawn Tennis Association, an official said yesterday.

“We have no intention of letting the girls dictate demands to the USLTA,” declared Walter E. Elcock of Brookline, Mass., the first vice president-elect of the association . “If they continue to disrupt our tournaments, it will be our policy to bar the girls from the championships like the United States Open until they get in line.”

“Get in line” they did not.

Over the next couple of years, the Virginia Slims circuit soared. Eventually, the USLTA tried to establish their own women’s circuit, and in 1973, Billie Jean King formed the WTA and all the women became united under one body. (This is a very rushed summary, of course. I recommend Heldman’s book — which also details her complicated relationship with her mother and her own struggles with mental illness — for a far more detailed account.)

But my favorite article from this “rogue” time comes from the NYT on February 14, 1971. I think it really sums up the spirit of the entire movement, and the impact it had. It begins with a very understated headline.

It opens up with the predictable framing: You thought ladies were just pretty, but they can sports and lead as well! Wow!

Then it describes how the men were absolutely dumbfounded at the success the women were having without them.

Absolute perfection.

Then, the article includes one of my favorite Billie Jean King quotes of all-time, where she doesn’t mince words when stating that the women going out on their own was the best thing that ever happened to them.

I really, really want to frame that. (Power Plays merch, anyone?! Too soon?)

Collective action and solidarity is the only way forward for women’s sports

Okay, so why did I take you all on this trip down memory lane, besides the fact that it was a blast?

Well, it’s because I spend a lot of time thinking about what the best way forward is for women’s sports, and, based on the many wonderful emails I’ve received in the week since launching Power Plays (thank you!!), you all wonder about this, too.

So, I figured what I believe is the biggest one-week payday in women’s sports history was worth a deeper dive.

The obvious answer here seems to be: Leave the men in the dust. Claim your independence.

And sometimes I think it truly is that simple. I have serious doubts as to whether the WNBA will ever reach its full potential under the auspices of the NBA, and the NWSL is already moving away from U.S. Soccer and to a much more independent model so that it can take the next step — you know, the ones that will take it from sustainability to outright success.

At the same time, women’s sports without that institutional support — such as softball and hockey — haven’t fared as well. (Though their models are more than worth exploring; and trust me, we will.)

Plus, women’s tennis has undeniably benefited from the fact that its most high-profile tournaments are joint tournaments with the men, even after the WTA was formed. And there are other reasons that, unfortunately, help explain why women’s tennis has been easier for a male-dominated power structure to market and embrace: The “uniforms” usually conform to traditional ideals of femininity, and its predominately a white, wealthy sport.

Given that, I remain on the fence about whether complete independence is the best thing for women’s pro sports. It is a topic that we will come back to here at Power Plays time and time again.

But I feel much more confident saying that the solidarity shown by the Original 9 is the only way for women’s sports to truly move forward. We’ve seen significant labor movements in women’s soccer and women’s hockey over the past couple of years, and that organizing is, hopefully, only the beginning.

Collective action by athletes in women’s sports is the only way progress is possible, whether or not it results in independence.

Of course, I asked Julie if she thought the WTA would ever have reached a $4.42 million payday if the Original 9 hadn’t gone rogue, and left the USLTA in the dust for a couple of years. 

"I think what you're saying is, ‘How do you do this working within a male structure?’ And the answer is, ‘You can't,’” she said. “How the hell do you get out of it?”

Okay, that’s all for today—thank for reading the fourth issue Power Plays! The next edition will hit your inbox on Friday. Don’t miss it.

Questions? Comments? Tips? I’m lindsay@powerplays.news. I would love to hear from you — especially about whether you enjoyed this deep dive into the archives, and would like to see more posts like this in the future? We’re figuring this all out together, friends.

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