Battle of the Sexes' Feuds

The release of the new movie reminds us that public feuding, staged or not, has its plus side.

Nearly 45 years ago this month, Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs competed in the most famous tennis match of all time. The match had all the elements of a great feud: the alpha male, misogynist Riggs convinced of his superiority against a dominant female player who advocated for equality and social justice off the court. The fact that a movie about the match, “Battle of the Sexes,” is opening in theaters this weekend speaks as much to its cultural and political significance as it does to its influence on the sport of tennis. It also underscores what athletes and entertainers have long known: feuds can serve a strategic purpose.

“Feuds help get eyeballs, draw attention and build brands,” says Henry Topping, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Media, Entertainment and Sports practice.

Indeed, it is well known that Riggs masterminded the “Battle of the Sexes” plotline to both make money and bring attention to the sport of tennis. (Some suggest he threw the match to pay off gambling debts to the mob.) The narrative behind the recent Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Conor McGregor fight centered on two warriors feuding for their respective sport’s supremacy. Feuding is part of the fabric of hip-hop music. And it is an essential ingredient of Taylor Swift’s brand—her song’s about bad breakups with famous lovers and social media fights with other artists have helped sell more than 40 million albums and 130 million single downloads worldwide.

Taking a page from the entertainment and sports world, corporate leaders are more willing than ever to start a feud to serve a strategic business purpose. Just look at the incredible rise of T-Mobile. Financial analysts note how T-Mobile’s subscriber and market share gains stem from its innovative, consumer-friendly product offerings such as ending the two-year contract agreement, free video and music streaming, and deep discounting. But there’s also no doubt that the spunky, combative social media persona of T-Mobile CEO John Legere factors into its recent success as well. At least Legere thinks so—he wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review earlier this year about competitive strategy and “winning market share by trash-talking rivals.” 

“If you are a brand in the challenger category, you have to take some risks and find ways to create some noise,” Topping says. “One strategy can be to build a following amongst those who reject the more established or corporatist brands.”

Activist campaigns are basically feuds between disgruntled investors and entrenched management. Activist investors target floundering companies by buying up their stock and then presenting compelling arguments to other shareholders to highlight management’s shortcomings and enact change either through a sale or merger, board appointments, or replacing management. Much of this feuding is strategically carried out in the press, through regulatory filings and on social media.

Business leaders also appear more willing to pick fights that go against the organizations’ or customers’ core values. Corporate leaders resigned en masse from multiple presidential councils, for instance, after they disagreed with President Trump’s initial response to the violence in Charlottesville. With the influence of social media and the importance of purpose to employee engagement, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more corporate leaders willing to speak up publicly, not just to defend their organizations’ values, but also to amplify the brand in the eyes of consumers.