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Flashback Friday: Remembering the Buckskins and Minnesota's summer of professional team tennis

May 31, 2019 10:56 AM

Billie Jean King was one of the most famous athletes in the world in 1974.

The tennis legend had just beaten Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" before a primetime network television audience on ABC the previous September - an exhibition match that drew a crowd of 30,472 to the Houston Astrodome and a worldwide viewing number estimated at around 90 million.

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So there was perhaps no one better to help get World Team Tennis - the professional league co-founded by King, her then-husband Larry and others - off the ground.

The WTT began with 16 teams in May 1974, including one right here in Minnesota.

The Minnesota Buckskins were owned by Burt McGlynn - the founder of McGlynn Bakeries. And they played their home matches at the old Met Center in Bloomington.

Each team was made up of men's and women's players competing in men's singles, men's doubles, women's singles, women's doubles and mixed doubles.

King, herself, played for the Philadelphia Freedoms, a team for whom Elton John - a friend of hers - co-wrote his huge hit "Philadelphia Freedom" as a way of paying homage.

But the Buckskins had their share of talent as well. 

Player-coach Owen Davidson - an Australian - had once been a singles semifinalist at Wimbledon, and won multiple Grand Slam men's and mixed doubles championships, including a number with King as his partner.

Anna Haydon-Jones, from England, won a number of Grand Slam singles and doubles titles over her career, including the 1969 women's singles title at Wimbledon when she beat King 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in the finals.

Both have gone on to be enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

"We had a terrific season," Davidson recalls. "We had great players and the Met Center was a great place to play. Nothing else was going on there during the summer, so we could leave the court down and use it as our practice facility.

"We had great support from the local people up there. Fans got really involved."

Never more than on June 1, 1974 when the Buckskins played host to Philadelphia and King. The match drew a crowd reported at 10,658 to Met Center to see Minnesota come away with a 29-22 victory.

"She owned the league and she was the main reason it got started," Davidson said of King. "She was a big draw and she really got everything off the ground."

The Freedoms went on to finish runner-up to the Denver Racquets that first season. But Minnesota had a pretty successful year as well.

The Buckskins finished with a record of 27-17 and won the Gulf Plains Section before falling to the Racquets in the Western Division Championship Series.

"My aunt lived there at the time, in Minnetonka, so it was one of the best deals I'd ever had in my life," remembers Terry Holladay, who had just turned professional before joining the Buckskins later that year.

"I was really the benchwarmer. The talent pool on that team was so big. Ann Jones had been a Wimbledon champion. Wendy Turnbull would go on to play in Grand Slam finals. Owen Davidson was the coach.

"I just thought it was a great concept," she continued. "Especially for the more casual tennis fan. You had so many different types of tennis being played and so many different characters out on the court."

But despite their success, the Buckskins simply couldn't generate enough revenue to make it work. In early November of 1974, UPI reported "the financially-stricken Minnesota Buckskins of WTT will not operate here (Minnesota) next season and may fold, Burt McGlynn, team president, said today."

In the Nov. 7, 1974 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune, McGlynn was quoted as saying the team lost $280,000 during the 1974 season, despite ranking in the top five in the league in attendance.

So it was no surprise when later that month - despite what had been apparent interest from investors in Indianapolis and Washington D.C. - the WTT announced the franchise would fold.

The league itself has gone through different incarnations over the years, but remains active today.

"As the season went along, you could see that some of the teams - including the Buckskins - were financially struggling," Davidson said. "Compared with some of the bigger markets, the Buckskins just weren't quite as powerful in that respect.

"But we all enjoyed living there. It was a great 12 weeks or so. The weather was great in the summer. Fans got into it. It was just a shame they couldn't keep it going."

"I played five or six more years in the league after Minnesota," Holladay added. "But that team had so many good players. The fan support seemed really strong relatively speaking.

"But they couldn't keep it going and things just kind of died out."

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