James Boyes

26 January 2022 - 3:58 PM

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Mark Crick

CEO of world's first 'gender equal club': "We are changing the way people think football can be run"

  • In 2017, Lewes FC became the first football club in the world to split revenue evenly between their men's and women's teams.
  • The East Sussex club reject sponsorships with brands whose values do not align with their own and ultimately hope to become the most owned football team in the world.
  • Why it matters: As plenty of clubs (and brands) talk about purpose and investing in women's football, Lewes FC are putting their money where their mouth is and seeing the advantages and limitations of this approach.
  • The perspective: With many fans wanting clubs to adopt more inclusive ownership models, is Lewes FC's purpose before profit philosophy sustainable?

Maggie Murphy has never been afraid to challenge the status quo.

Her first encounter with Lewes FC, the club where she has been chief executive since July, was at their 3,000-capacity The Dripping Pan stadium with a visiting team from her native Isle of Wight. Aged 13, she technically shouldn’t have been there.

"I was playing under somebody else's name, because I was too young to play. But there were no girls’ football teams on the Isle of Wight. So I had to play for the women's team," Murphy tells Off The Pitch.

Murphy had a career in global advocacy before football, focusing on anti-corruption and human rights. Lewes returned to her radar in 2017, when they became the first football club in the world to commit to splitting revenue evenly between their men's and women's teams.

The women's first team currently play in the second-tier FA Women's Championship, with the men's first team in the seventh-tier Isthmian League Premier Division.

"From afar, I saw this club and I was struck by what a ray of light, of hope, it was for me as someone that had been interested in football since I was a kid," Murphy says.

"This was the first time I saw a club putting its money where its mouth was and not just saying that women were important or wearing a t-shirt or running an event or campaign, but actually saying 'we're going to do something and it's going to cost us'."

She became a shareholder in the club, which was taken over by community owners in 2010 after narrowly avoiding bankruptcy. Murphy was named general manager in 2019, before becoming CEO last year.

Changing decision making

Lewes, from a town of 27,000 in East Sussex, have developed a reputation as a club who do things differently. As well as the equal revenue split, they reject sponsorships with brands whose values don't align with their own. They value principles above profit. Only one of the five pillars in the club's strategy focuses on football – two pledge to make a positive impact, both locally and globally.

Outside the local area, the club remains best-known for their "Equality FC" initiative which saw them become the first "gender equal club" in the world.

"It's not just about pay parity. It's about the way you treat and value your players.
How you allocate your training pitch, what areas you give to your women's team or your men's team. Whether you have equal access to proper kit," Murphy says.

"So this was about changing decision making as much as it is about pay parity or splitting revenue equally."

Over the next two seasons, attendances for the women's team quadrupled even as the club increased ticket prices 160 per cent to show they valued each team equally.

The response wasn't entirely positive, however. Some fans were unhappy with the club's stance and one male director resigned, complaining he felt like "I'm leaving a political party".

Brands didn't immediately jump at the chance to be associated with the gender-equal club either, with Murphy admitting sponsor interest is "taking more time" than was hoped.

"I think it probably needed a few years of really hard times to prove that this wasn't a gimmick and this wasn't a superficial short-term campaign. Lots of brands at the moment are talking about authenticity and purpose. I mean, we have authenticity and purpose in spades," Murphy says.

Some hope that we fail

One company that has come on board is British fashion brand Lyle and Scott. The deal, worth six figures, is Lewes' biggest ever sponsorship agreement.

The partnership includes a content series, sponsoring the front of the kits of the men's and women's teams, providing grassroots community outreach and developing club facilities.

"That was really important for us a year ago, because it validated all the work that we've been doing. Because it's been tough. And I think, even though it's been incredibly positive on the whole, we still have a small minority of people that don't like what the club did, and try to find different ways to complain about it," Murphy says.

"I think some people are expecting what they call 'the project' to fail. And that can be quite hard when you're trying to make something succeed when you realise that there are people out there that are potentially hoping that it fails so that they can go back to the way it was."

So this was about changing decision making as much as it is about pay parity or splitting revenue equally

While brand interest in the club is increasing, Lewes will not sacrifice their values for sponsorship pounds.

A few years ago, a gambling company offered the club what would have been the largest amount of sponsorship money they had ever received.

The offer was discussed and rejected by the board, who felt it was "not in line with our community purpose". Instead, the club promoted Gambling with Lives, a charity set up by families bereaved by gambling related suicides, on the front of their shirts.

"I think because the principles and values are really enshrined in the way that we operate as a club, it was easy to take that decision," Murphy says.

"I think it's much harder for clubs who don't understand their values and don't have principles and don't have a purpose. If they get offered a lot of money, it's very difficult to turn down.

"We're still quite selective. But we're also in a position where we're looking for partners who really want to be part of the story and part of something bigger than just sponsoring a football club. Because we are more than a football club."

Fun and frivolous

Ultimately, Murphy wants the club to run on a self-sustaining model with funding from the club's owners.

Lewes have more than 2,000 owners in 37 countries and, in the short-term, want to become the most owned club in England. In the financial year to May 2021, owner fees made up about 10 per cent of the club's £652,000 revenue.

Anyone can become a member, with annual fees starting at £50. Late last year, Lewes launched an app to help owners vote on decisions.

They can use it to livestream matches, vote in elections and provide feedback on the club's strategic plan. They can also help make decisions about "fun and frivolous" things like the walkout music on matchdays, player of the month or choosing between the two final designs of the home kit.

Photo:

James Boye | Lewes FC women's team

"We want them to feel valued. We're constantly trying to figure out ways of continuing to provide information on how the club is being run, the decisions that we're taking," Murphy says.

"When you see the reasons why people become owners, it's because of our principles and values. They sign up to this football club that they wish their own football club was a little bit more like.

"We would like to ultimately be the most owned club in the world. And that means beating Barcelona, but they only have 140,000 owners so I think that’s possible."

Murphy says it is no secret the plan is for the men's and women's teams to be promoted. For the women's team, this would mean playing in the WSL. All current WSL teams are part of a club with a men's team in the Premier League or Championship.

Murphy says not having this attachment provides Lewes with "autonomy" and the ability to "test and pilot and innovate", for example with the matchday fan experience and catering. However, she says the FA's license criteria make it "harder and harder" for smaller teams like Lewes to compete.

Sometimes they just don’t work

The WSL's record-breaking, £8 million-a-season broadcast deal signed with the BBC and Sky last year will see WSL clubs receive 75 per cent and Women's Championship clubs 25 per cent, after central investments from The FA.

"I would really like women’s football to be able to do things differently," Murphy, who sits on the board of the WSL and Women’s Championship, says.

"I would have loved the approach, and this is something I raised, to be an equity mindset. So how do we make sure that the Championship can remain competitive with the WSL? The WSL already will get huge amounts of sponsorship because they're on Sky and BBC. So how about we split the actual resources that come down so the Championship clubs can try to remain competitive?

"I think the greatest challenge is football is still by default male and we lift up rules and we apply them over here. We lift up KPIs, and we put them over here. And sometimes they just don't work."

While each club playing at the highest possible level is the goal on the pitch, it is not the most important for a club who say doing good in their communities "is a core purpose of their existence". 

"We run the risk of deciding that success for Lewes FC is solely what happens on the pitch. I want us to get those promotions. But we do so many more things as a club, that I want to make sure we're clear there are other measures of success that we can hit," Murphy says.

"And if we don't hit those promotions, I don't want to feel terrible about it. Because I think we are changing the way that people think football can be run. And that in itself is a huge success."