Sports Writing

Women 102, Haters Zero


Time for some writing, huh? This is one of my personal favorites from back in the day when I was covering the WNBA for my friend Sports Page Mike D’Avino. First published in 2009, it feels just right for a Throwback Thursday on 50.lux. (And my buddy Harold the TV cameraman is NOT a hater! He always looks like that!)

Women 102, Haters Zero

By Donald Barnat: SPM Associate Women’s Basketball Editor

Posted Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thirty-six years ago, a tennis match, hyped to the point where it became a cultural phenomena, drew a Super Bowl-sized primetime television audience estimated to be near 48 million.

The fascination surrounding The Battle of the Sexes was due to the fact that it pitted 55-year-old Robert Larimore Riggs, decades past being the world’s number one male tennis player but squarely in his prime as a crass and offensive self-promotion machine, against 29-year-old Billie Jean King, a woman who would methodically and mercilessly take the tired air out of Bobby Riggs’s lungs and remove it as well from the tired notion that never could a female, even one of the world’s most elite tennis players, beat even an adequate male counterpart.

The event, which took place at the Astrodome in Houston, brought in 30, 472 paying spectators — at the time the largest crowd ever to attend a tennis match. Play was preceded by a star-studded champagne reception and the entire affair had the air of an ancient gladiator-era spectacle as much as it did that of a modern professional sporting event.

Riggs was wheeled onto the court in a rickshaw that was drawn by five scantily clad women. King’s mode of transportation was no less ridiculous; she was borne by bare-chested male carrier-slaves on a golden divan, while men in the pricy front row seats held up signs printed with sexist taunts.

That was 36 years ago. This past Wednesday evening the WNBA sanctioned its own Battle of the Sexes, even boldly lifting that infamously iconic event title and emblazing it word-for-word across the front of the league’s website.

The WNBA, it seems, with its hopes for a brighter future stifled precariously in the economic doldrums of the present, had decided that, at least for one night, the time was ripe for some old-school hype.

It didn’t work, of course. No one save the most devoted of the league’s fans even noticed.

It was a half-hearted, almost tongue-in-cheek effort in terms of promotion, which was to be expected. The WNBA is, after all, an actual professional sports league, still closely attached to the NBA, heretofore stodgy, respectable in its own eyes, with scores of co-owners, investors and sponsors, many of whom would likely not be amused by an embarrassing and desperate marketing spectacle.

Too bad.

So there was no setting of the table of expectations with a media blitz brought to you by charismatic figures like Bobby Riggs. And, unlike the nationwide anticipation and exploitive spectacle that preceded American sport’s first modern Battle of the Sexes, even devoted followers of womens’ basketball seemed to be caught off guard by the last-minute announcement of the game on the league’s normally staid and altogether corporate-careful website.

The contest was clearly there on the WNBA preseason schedule, but that pretty much was the extent of the promotion prior to game day.

The facts are pretty straightforward. The WNBA’s Chicago Sky, a team that finished last season with 12 wins and 22 losses, a team that only 25% of the league’s GMs pick to even make the playoffs in 2009, was matched against the E-League All-Stars, a not-ready-for-primetime collection of singers, rappers, actors, comedians, all hailing from a basketball league made up of entertainers with real athletic skills and prowess where, it is said, real basketball is played in real games in a real league by, you guessed it, real men — most in their 20s and 30s and decades younger than Bobby Riggs was when he met his match back in 1973.

Whether a solitary soul tuned into the game or not, or whether or not (as of this writing it seems NOT) a single article would be written or published on the game itself, this contest, played as part of the Sky’s preseason schedule and according to league rules, was nevertheless a watershed moment for the WNBA, for women’s basketball, and for women’s sports as a whole.

Beset from its very beginnings by claims that any YMCA league team made up of lawyers and accountants, any rec-league team of ex-high school players, any junior high school boys team, in fact, any passable team at all of well-conditioned males who play basketball together regularly would surely wipe the floor with the best the women’s game has to offer, the WNBA is one American sports league with 12 long years worth of scores to settle.

The reality of what happened in the game itself can be described in a number of different ways. The score tells the story of emasculation in hard numbers. Chicago Sky 102, E-League All-Stars 55.

Another way of looking at it, and a personal favorite, is that guys with names like Tank and Flex got a beat down by players named Brooke and Kristi.

The guys played rough, and, as a result, their opponents often ended up splayed out on the hardwood. But the pro ballers gracefully picked themselves up, glided by their male opponents and not completely unlike what Billie Jean did to Bobby Riggs, the sleek and skilled females played circles around the brawny and befuddled men.

Overall the losers seemed to be good sports about their drubbing, taking their medicine, well, like men.

As of right now, no one is rubbing anyone’s noses in the dirt with taunts of I-told-you-so’s. But it’s hard to imagine that the WNBA’s decision-makers, newly emboldened and willing now, it seems, to embark on more flamboyant paths to recognition and profitability, could not see the potential in what just happened right before their eyes.

Both Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King turned down offers to stage a rematch of their epically hyped battle and for both of them it was probably the right decision. Nobody really wanted to see a young woman beat an old man, all over again.

But the WNBA has never been remotely associated with anything that was even effectively hyped. It looks like they’re really trying now and they would be wise to dabble with the idea of staging and this time actively promoting another Battle of the Sexes.

And if they can just convince the men of the E-League All-Stars to show up once again to play them, they’ll have nothing to lose.