For our extensive coverage of the 2023 Outsports Power 100, and to see all of the honorees, click here. And share on social media with #Outsports100.
Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss are legends in the sports world.
As athletes, the two women each won multiple Grand Slam titles. King won 39 — third most of all time — and Kloss with two.
As advocates they have been iconic champions of women in sports, King one of the Original Nine professional women’s tennis players and Kloss, a few years younger, joining the push for female athletes not long after. They have never relented.
They are also, as far as we are aware, the longest-term couple in a same-sex relationship between two professional athletes.
For all of this and so much more, Billie Jean King and Ilana Kloss are Outsports’ pick for the most powerful and influential out LGBTQ people in American sports.
Much of that, King and Kloss told Outsports, is due to that partnership. The women aren’t just in love — they have been for over 40 years — but they approach their work in sports as a business partnership as well.
“I’m the dreamer and Ilana is the builder,” King told Outsports. “People give me credit when so often they should give Ilana credit. I get upset about it.”
To be sure, King is the more recognizable name of the two. She was the first tennis player and the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the year — in 1972. She is in the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and she was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama.
Yet so much of her personal legacy is because of the partnership between the two women.
Billie Jean and Ilana are, first and foremost, a team
“For Billie and me, we’re a team,” Kloss said. “I’m comfortable being the woman behind the throne. I know my role and how important it is. To me it’s a total team effort.”
They acknowledged that not every couple can be business partners. King said she’s had countless people tell her they couldn’t possibly be engaged in so many business ventures with their spouse.
Yet here these two women are, four decades in, still going strong on both fronts.
“A lot of couples can’t get along if they do business together,” King said. “I find that we get along really well. We don’t take things personally, which I’m big on. So that’s been really helpful.”
It was in the nascent days of professional women’s tennis in the early 1970s that the two women began a bond — at that point centered largely on the business of tennis — that explored some of the ins and outs of the sports-business world with King’s ex-husband, Larry King (not the broadcaster).
“Larry and I owned tournaments,” King said. “I learned the sponsorship side, budgets, everything. It comes in handy now, all the years owning tournaments and helping other sports.”
When Kloss arrived on the scene, she was eager to get involved.
“I had the opportunity to learn the business when we started the WTA in 1973. I was very fortunate to have been mentored by Billie and her former husband, Larry, who ran tournaments.”
The business acumen of the two women has continued to grow. BJK Enterprises is a successful company founded by King, and Kloss is its CEO. Together they’ve forged the investing, consulting and marketing company into a powerful driver bringing opportunities to underrepresented communities, working with major sports entities like adidas, ESPN, Wilson, the WTA Tour, the NWSL, the USTA and many more.
The duo also co-founded the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, working to build equal opportunity and access in business, with such advisory board members from sports as Jason Collins, Venus and Serena Williams, and New England Patriots President Jonathan Kraft.
In addition to other board roles and initiatives, the two women are members of the ownership groups for the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angel City FC. King also founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, and both serve on the Board of Trustees.
“We love business,” King said. “We love helping others. We love nonprofits as well. Business helps community. It’s been fun to help soccer, it’s been fun to help softball. Ice hockey we care about, women’s basketball we care about.”
So what’s the secret to their incredible success in business that has translated into their perch atop the 2023 Outsports Power 100?
“The most important thing is relationships,” Kloss said. “Throughout our life we have built some incredible relationships.
“It started with Billie always feeling like the media were super important, and actually the media — she always felt — it was critical to give the media time because they’re the people who tell our stories. Building those relationships was something that was really important.”
Becoming part owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers
It was a relationship they had built with Mark Walter that led them to owning part of the Dodgers. Walter, a successful businessman, is one of the owners of the Los Angeles Sparks, and he thought it would be a great idea if King and Kloss would join the Sparks team.
They knew that Walter is also part-owner and chairman of the Dodgers.
“I said to him, and I never do this, women don’t do this enough, I actually asked him for what I really wanted and I said, ‘Why not the Dodgers’?” King asked.
Walter had thought the women would be great to join a women’s team ownership group. And they would, eventually joining the ownership group of Angel City FC.
Yet King and Kloss saw the power of two gay women joining the ownership group of one of the most-storied men’s teams in America.
“And he said ‘why not?’” King remembered. “We’re very indebted to Mark. Women so often can’t get access to these kinds of opportunities.”
Powerful approach to relationships, business and otherwise
Part of King and Kloss’ approach to relationships has been, like with their own personal relationship, avoiding taking things too personally and not emotionally holding onto problems that arise.
“Don’t hold grudges,” King said. “The things that have happened in my life, I’ve gotten opportunities because I didn’t hold grudges.”
For someone who in the Sixties and Seventies was told no men would ever support female athletes, who was outed against her will and who lost countless opportunities for challenging the status quo and being outed, she’s a model for being able to put the past in the past.
“The way she looks at business and life is the way she used to play,” Kloss said. “She looks at it from the other side of the net and the greater 30,000-foot global view. That has really served us well.”
Through it all, helping people in the LGBTQ community find their place in this world is critical for the two women. It’s personal for them.
As mentioned, King was famously outed in 1981, costing her endorsement deals. She and Kloss both know the deep struggles so many LGBTQ people around the world experience.
“It’s just great to care about every person, to try to help our LGBTQ community always,” King said. “Inclusion is what I really love. Even as a child, I was big into inclusion. I certainly didn’t know about LGBT in the 50s growing up, and then the journey being so difficult, being outed, losing sponsorships, it gave me opportunities to see how people think.”
‘Doing things we love to do’
Of course, continuing to champion women is also central to their work.
“Forty percent of pro athletes are women, but we only get five percent of the media,” King said. “Media rights is where the money is. We’re so far behind in pay, opportunities, we’re always compared to the men, but women’s sports are just at a tipping point.”
Whether it’s buying a baseball team, organizing conversations with some of the most powerful people in sports, raising money for women and LGBTQ people, or just spending time together, King and Kloss are model human beings doing what they do best.
“The great thing is we’ve gotten to the point where we are doing things we love to do, versus what we have to do,” Kloss said. “It’s a real gift to help others and create opportunities. Our goal and role is to pay it forward and ensure others have opportunities we’ve fought for.
“Every day Billie says, ‘I’m not done yet.’ As long as she says that, we’ll keep going. It’s work, but it’s fun and we love it.”