Capital One's The Match

When men and women compete in sports, the inevitable conversation always happens

February 20, 2024
Wimbledon champion Billie Jean King tactfully holds down the net, so that 55-year-old Bobby Riggs can easily clear it during meeting at an east side tennis club here July 11th. Returning in triumph from London, Mrs. King will meet Riggs in a $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match, it was announced July 11th.

This coming Monday, Capital One’s The Match returns for its ninth edition, and for the first time, it will feature women. Rose Zhang and Lexi Thompson will compete alongside Rory McIlroy and Max Homa in a 12-hole skins game at “The Park” Municipal Course in West Palm Beach. Adding the mixed element is a great concept for a franchise that has consistently been more entertaining than almost anyone expected when it debuted in 2018. But let's be honest with ourselves: The introduction of Zhang and Thompson also will introduce some form of an antiquated conversation about the respective athletic prowess of men and women, and of who belongs where in the world of professional sports.

It's inevitable, even in 2024, and even in seemingly low-stakes settings like we’ll see next week in The Match. At last weekend's NBA All-Star game, Steph Curry and Sabrina Ionescu engaged in a very entertaining one-on-one three-point contest. Ionescu put up a terrific score that would have tied Damian Lillard's winning score in the actual three-point contest, Curry beat her on the last rack, and on the TNT broadcast, Kenny Smith kept insisting that Ionescu should have shot from the women's three-point line. Brittni Donaldson, an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks and something of a pioneer herself, summed up a good chunk of the reaction with this tweet:

As it happens, Zhang and Thompson will be using closer tees for eight of the 12 holes at The Park (all four will start from the same tee box on the par 3s), but in terms of the kind of discourse we can expect, that won't make a lick of difference. In fact, should Zhang or Thompson win, you can bet that at least on social media, we'll hear how they did so because of shorter tees. In this situation, there's no winning, and golf certainly isn't immune. In a Local Knowledge podcast episode last year, we profiled the six times that women played on the PGA Tour (there has since been a seventh, courtesy of Lexi Thompson herself at last fall's Shriners Children's Open), and to say that the history has been rocky would be an understatement. Things have gotten better in the modern era—whatever drama is stirred up in West Palm Beach will be relatively tame compared to what has come before—but it wasn't very long ago that Annika Sorenstam went through the stressful ordeal of “re-breaking” the PGA Tour’s gender barrier at the 2003 Colonial Invitational.

In golf, as in all sports, women meet the same resistance, the same questions and the same narratives when they compete on the same level as men. What follows are a few historical highlights that prove the point: the rare but poignant moments when women competed against men and instigated some deep-seated issues in the psyche of the global sports fan. In a few instances, at least, they created some genuine discourse that helped progress the conversation, if only a few steps—something that might happen next week in Florida.

Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs, 1973

The term "Battle of the Sexes" is used liberally to describe any competitive meeting between a man and a woman, but it is associated most closely with the most famous of them all, when tennis great Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in straight sets at the Houston Astrodome after a long build-up. There are a few facts that are under-reported about this momentous event. First, Riggs is often portrayed as a competent but mediocre amateur hacker. The truth is that even though he was 55 at the time, he was a top player in his prime and a six-time major champion. He had also just beaten Margaret Court in a similar match a few months earlier. More than 90 million people watched as King played a defensive style to stymie Riggs, and the ABC broadcast was notably missing Jack Kramer, who King had forced off due to his sexist remarks and his history of opposing equal pay in tennis. Even after her victory, allegations emerged that Riggs threw the match to settle a mob debt. The truth of this still hasn't been settled, but it sounded then (and now) a lot like male commentators being unable to accept the result.

Shirley Muldowney and Danica Patrick, Car Racing

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Danica Patrick poses with the trophy after winning the IndyCar Series Bridgestone Indy Japan 300 Mile in 2008.

Jonathan Ferrey

Shirley Muldowney isn't talked about very often today, but she was the first woman to get her drag racing license in America's top division, Top Fuel. She faced serious opposition, at least until the NHRA realized what kind of draw she was for the sport, and she won three Top Fuel championships in 1977, 1980 and 1982, and continued racing for years, even after a debilitating car wreck that required multiple surgeries. Along the way, she encountered her share of sexism; according to her, racers like Don Garlits would say things like "we used to go racing to get away from the women," trash her to fans and use obscene language to mock her.

Danica Patrick, Muldowney’s spiritual heir, is "TV famous" as a spokesperson for GoDaddy, but her off-the-track fame serves to disguise what was a legitimately successful racing career. She was IndyCarl's Rookie of the Year in 2005, finished third in the Indianapolis 500 (the best finish by a woman) and, in 2008, became the only woman to ever win an IndyCar series race at the Japan 300. And even though her NASCAR career never reached the same heights as her IndyCar run, she became the first woman to win a pole position in the Sprint Cup Series and owns the record for most top-10 finishes by a woman. Unlike Muldowney, the opposition Patrick faced was more about her image; fans criticized her as trading on her sex appeal and diminished her very real accomplishments in the sport.

Manon Rheaume plays an NHL exhibition game

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Manon Rheaume sits on the Tampa Bay Lightning bench during an NHL preseason game against the St. Louis Blues in 1992.

B Bennett

Rheaume represents a strange intersection in the history of gender and sports, in that she broke through certain barriers, but was ultimately one of a kind; nobody followed her. After becoming the first woman to play in a men's major junior hockey game as a goalie, she tried out for the Tampa Bay Lightning and made history when she played in a preseason game against the St. Louis Blues in 1992. A year later, she played in another game, this time against the Boston Bruins. Rheaume never made it into a regular season game, and spent five years in the minor leagues before retiring for the first time. Simultaneously, she had a successful international career with the Canadian women's national team and later played professionally in the WWHL. In her short time with the Lightning, she had to use a separate dressing room from the men, and Lightning president Phil Esposito threw her under the bus, saying, "I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't using it for the publicity. The fact is, if I could put a horse in net—if it could stand on skates and stop the puck—I'd do it."

Karsten Braasch vs. Venus and Serena Williams, 1998

There have been many, many, many "battles of the sexes" in tennis, and for space reasons we're only choosing two, but this exhibition, in 1998 is often forgotten despite being relatively recent. Near their prime, the Williams sisters boasted that they could beat any man ranked outside the top 200 in the world, and the German Braasch, ranked 203rd, issued a public challenge during the Australian Open. In terms of feminist narratives, this one isn't very uplifting; after playing a round of golf and drinking two shandies, Braasch beat Serena 6-1 and then topped Venus 6-2. Nor was he restrained afterward, claiming that he played like someone ranked more like 600th to keep the matches fun. He went on to say that men were both faster and could put more spin on the ball, and that the Williams sisters wouldn't be able to beat anyone within the top 500.

Annika Sorenstam at Colonial, 2003

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Annika Sorenstam warms up on the driving range before the start of her second round at the 2003 Bank of America Colonial, where she was the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event in nearly 50 years.

Andy Lyons

Technically, Sorenstam wasn't the first woman to play in a PGA Tour event, but because she was the first to do so in about 50 years, she was essentially treated like a pioneer. And while 2003 may sound relatively "recent," barely more than 20 years ago, Sorenstam faced the kind of pressure you might have expected her to face if she attempted this in 1903 instead of 2003. Players like Vijay Singh complained that she was taking a spot from the field, Nick Price said it "reeks of publicity." Scott Hoch went further, saying that he hoped Annika played well, since he believed she did so and still failed, it would leave her with no excuses and she would realize “she can't compete against the men." Even one of Sorenstam's female contemporaries, Angela Stanford, wrote in Sports Illustrated that "there are physical limitations to being a woman, and that will be laid bare when she tees it up in front of the world." Outside of golf, you had commentators like Armstrong Williams saying things on CNN like, "a mediocre high school male could dominate the LPGA."

The media presence was smothering, and suddenly Sorenstam, who had played against Tiger Woods and David Duval along with Karrie Webb in an exhibition match in 2001, felt like she had the expectations of her entire gender on her shoulders. Ironically, part of the reason the tour initiated her appearance was because Suzy Whaley, a teaching pro who would later become president of the PGA of America, had qualified for a PGA Tour event later that year by winning a PGA of America section event playing from different tees from the men. Sorenstam was protecting her by being the "first," but clearly she wasn't protecting herself. As it happened, her ball-striking was solid, but she struggled chipping and putting. After shooting 71-74 to miss the cut, she broke down on a phone call with LPGA Commissioner Ty Votaw, and no wonder—she had played incredibly well given the stressful circumstances, and even her harshest critics recognized it. Sorenstam would go on to play against the men’s in a handful of less pressured-packed Skins Game.

We could go on—these are just the most infamous examples of women who found themselves in male-dominated sports realms. Compared to many of them, The Match will be lower stakes, and the treatment of Zhang and Thompson (hopefully) tame. But even for an exhibition that might be forgotten soon after it airs, it's worth remembering those who came before and made events like these just a little easier, and made the inevitable discourse that much less inevitable.