In 2017, Lewes FC became the world’s first football club to commit to pay parity for its men’s and women’s teams. It was a historical moment for a male-dominated sport that propelled the non-league club, established in 1885, into the wider consciousness.
Since then the women’s team has gone from strength-to-strength, while the club itself has carried on as normal: fan-owned and not-for-profit since 2010, with a commitment to helping the community, they are an example for anyone that believes football is just a plaything for millionaires and tired masculine tropes. They also share similar traits with small businesses and show that, in an era where we’re all striving for workplace parity, the status quo can be broken from below. We spoke to Marketing Manager Charlie Dobres about their journey, and why equality is the key to success: in business and on the pitch.
Hey Charlie, how have things changed since 2017?
Obviously, we generated a lot of media coverage and on the pitch, we’ve moved up to FA Women’s Championship. We [the women’s team] have a different manager. Our average attendance has doubled [to 586] so Lewes is in the top 10 most supported women’s teams in the country. We’re hoping to get into the top five this season and aiming for around 1000. We think the audience is there.
Is this better performance simply down to paying a higher wage?
It doesn’t all come down to that but in Soccernomics – a bible of football economics – one of the main takeouts is there’s almost a linear relationship between playing budget size, how much you pay players, and the success you get.
In our case that is augmented by the fact we’re giving a very strong signal about what you’re doing. So it [pay parity] is motivation for existing players and also a beacon for ones that might want to come play for you. When we get to the end of this current phase and hopefully we’re in the Super League [the top women’s football division in the country] and people ask, ‘How did you get there?’ we want to be able to clearly identify that it’s down to our gender parity stance.
Do you think your status as a fan-owned club has enabled you to take this stand?
Our one-member, one-vote, not-for-profit status has obviously helped but anyone can do it. It’s a choice. We’re asked a lot if mutualising our status enabled us to take this stance and the answer is: sort of. But actually, it’s a choice.
Where did this commitment to a profound moral standpoint come from?
In 2010 we became community owned and our constitution stated that front and centre, the club was to be an engine for social change. We’ve interpreted that as being exemplary in everything we do and we currently have a certain amount of notoriety because of our stance on equal pay, but we also want to be exemplary in our football.
It’s like businesses? People invest in companies they believe in and that comes from a place of truth.
The best products and companies offer genuine benefits but are also authentic in terms of their meaning and association.
It feels like there’s a big opportunity for clubs and businesses with women’s football at the moment, especially with the World Cup generating new levels of attention.
It’s huge but we would like there to be 100 times more investment from people in the game. If you look at pattern outside the UK – places like France, Germany – in some cases the attendances are stagnant and falling again.
Then you get cases like Wanda Metropolitan [the Madrid stadium where over 60,000 people watched the women’s teams of Atlético Madrid and Barcelona’s play in March] which says there is a massive demand.
How have you seen your own crowds evolve?
We noticed early on that our crowds are largely women, ages 25-30 plus, who don’t like football.
No way! That’s fascinating.
We were seeing a lot of statements from women who liked what we were doing in terms of pay parity and decided to give it a go. It’s women who are old enough to have perhaps encountered enough sexism to recognise the difference in what we’re doing; they’d come and see women being brave, competitive, aggressive, sweaty, and not having to conform to the usual stereotypes. And get to share in that and shout about it with other people. It also seemed that there was a lot of women who wouldn’t consider going to a game because they think there’ll be a certain type of atmosphere. But they come here and have the experience and it’s great, then they tell friends.
Is it a different experience to men’s?
It’s about not automatically mimicking the men’s football experience. You know – you turn up 15/20 mins before kick off, barely move from your seat, then leave. We offer an elongated, enjoyable occasion. It’s still full of passion and excitement but it’s less pressurized.
Family is a big audience for you too?
Absolutely. Kids go free and that’s a big part of our policy.
Is there a game you’d recommend a first-timer attends to get the ultimate experience?
The first few games are the League Cup and, at that point, the chances are we’ll get a game against a London-based Super League team. But there are only 10 league games a season so make sure you come along because they’ll be gone before you know it!
Fancy more? Read Seb Royles' recent Letter to Members here: