World Team Tennis (1974)
Born: 1973 – WTT founding franchise
Folded: May 2, 1975
Owner: E.Z. Jones
On September 20th, 1973, the Houston Astrodome played host to the “Battle of the Sexes”, a brilliantly executed tennis promotion pitting 55-year old former World No. 1 Bobby Riggs against 29-year old Billie Jean King, the top-ranked female player in the world in 1971 and 1972. The three-set contest was actually something of a rematch as Riggs had previously defeated Margaret Court, the 1973 women’s #1, in Battle of the Sexes I, a match which is now entirely forgotten.
Riggs played the role of the heel, wearing a warm-up suit emblazoned with the slogan “Men’s Lib” and hyping the match with chauvinistic comments to the media. King took a more earnest approach, believing that a loss to Riggs following Court’s defeat would set back the development of the women’s tennis tour and women’s sports in general for years. King wasn’t entirely without a sense of humor – she entered the Astrodome on a throne held aloft by shirtless men in Egyptain slave garb. She also smoked Riggs in three straight sets, running the old man from end to end of the baseline.
For all of its pro wrestling-style theatrics, the Battle of the Sexes is regarded nearly 40 years later as a game-changing moment in the advancement of women’s pro sports, occuring just over a year after the U.S. Congress passed the landmark Title IX legislation which changed the landscape of women’s scholastic athletics. The promotion also helped raise the profile another initiative that King was at work on in late 1973 – the controversial launch of World Team Tennis.
World Team Tennis conceived of tennis as a co-ed team sport played in major hockey arenas across the United States. Each contest consisted of five matches – a single set of men’s and women’s singles, men’s and women’s doubles, and mixed doubles. Each game won equated to a point and cumulative team points determined the winner. King’s husband Larry King was one of the league’s founders and King herself served as promotional front woman and top female star.
Houston itself was set to receive one of the sixteen franchises scheduled to begin play in May 1974. The Houston E-Z Riders took their name from the team’s financial backer, oilman E.Z. Jones. The Riders’ logo was a brilliantly goofy ripoff of Yosemite Sam, with the mustachioed outlaw drawing a pair of smoking tennis racquets from his hip holsters.
In late 1973, the E-Z Riders signed Australian men’s star John Newcombe to a five-year contract. The Newcombe signing was a breakthrough for World Team Tennis, because the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the recently formed men’s player union, was staunchly opposed to its members departing the international touring schedule to play a 44-game team tennis between May and August each summer. Newcombe was the first to buck the union and opened the door for (some of) the top male players to sign on with World Team Tennis, including Jimmy Connors in 1974 and later Bjorn Borg, Vitas Gerulaitis and Ilie Nastase.
Other notable E-Z Riders included 23-year old American Dick Stockton, who made it to the Wimbledon semi-finals in 1974 in the midst of the E-Z Riders season, and Australian Helen Gourlay, a doubles specialist who nevertheless attained the 1971 French Open final as a singles player.
The E-Z Riders played most of their 22 home matches at the Sam Houston Coliseum, with four 1974 dates also scheduled at HemisFair Arena in San Antonio. The E-Z Riders finished with a 25-19 record in 1974, good enough to qualify for the World Team Tennis playoffs. In the opening round, the Minnesota Buckskins eliminated the E-Z Riders, ending what would turnout to be the franchise’s only season.
World Team Tennis wobbled badly in the winter following its debut season. The league contracted from 16 to 11 franchises. At first, Houston seemed to be one of the survivors, announcing a move from the Sam Houston Coliseum to the recently constructed Astro Arena. But the club fell behind in its financial obligations to the league. On the opening weekend of the the 1975 World Team Tennis schedule – and just ten days before their own season opener set for May 12th – the E-Z Riders suspended operations on May 2nd, 1975. The announcement was that the team would sit out the 1975 season and re-organize for a future revival, but as often happens the E-Z Riders were never heard from again.
The original World Team Tennis lasted for five seasons, eventually folding following the 1978 season. A lower-budget revival of World Team Tennis launched in 1981, again with Billie Jean King’s involvement, and continues going strong to this day.