A small town in East Sussex, UK is slowly making a remarkable change in the footballing ecosystem. The first club in the world to pay equal salaries to both Men’s and Women’s teams.
“The club was formed in a local pub in Lewes, by a group of sportsmen who played cricket. They wanted to play a sport during off season and decided on football. “Stuart Fuller spoke about the history of the club
In this edition of PAC Talks, Stuart Fuller, the Chairman of Lewes FC shared the details of this interesting 136 years journey , how it started, focus on Equality FC, the community ownership of the club and future plans.
Lewes FC was formed on 23rd September, 1885. The local parish council allowed them to use land known as the Dripping Pan. The ground gets its name from the monks who used to live there. The football club has played there for 135 years , one year they could not play when British army used the place as a storage location.
“It was a typical English non-league club with a wooden stand and grass . It was like that till 20-30 years ago.”
Couple of local business men, who were in the construction industry, put money into the club. The team started to perform well and reached the first round of FA Cup in 2003 and played away at Stoke City FC. At that time, the team had a young ambitious manager and he took the team through the leagues. The whole town was behind the team and games had 2000-2500 spectators, one in every 7 person in the town came down to watch the games.
Unfortunately , during the global financial crisis of 2006-08, the construction industry suffered and the owners of Lewes FC also faced the heat. They could not support the club anymore. The club was promoted to the highest level of non-league football but was not able to financially support and it came down rapidly again. It was the generosity of the local people which helped the club to survive.
“In 2010, a group of 6 individuals put together a plan. The owner agreed to sell the club for 1 Pound. They took over the liabilities and decided to become the life members of the club by paying 1000 pounds each.”
This started the way to Community owned football club which was initiated on 8th July, 2010. Anybody anywhere in the world can now buy a share in Lewes FC for approx. 40 pounds a year. In the first year, a total of 800 people became the owners of the club. The owners can vote at the AGMs, select the Directors, etc.
The club website says: ‘Lewes FC is run by the people, of the people, and for the people. This is our declaration of football independence – which means you (yes YOU!) can be an owner of our club.‘
The performance of the club did not improve and were relegated to the 8th tier of English football. It was during this time in 2012-13, Lewes FC decided to focus on Women’s team. Women’s team were playing at a low level such that players were paying the club to play football. By 2014-15 the Women’s team was made part of the main club.
The club decided to share the resources between the Men’s and Women’s team. The club spend 18 months looking at how they could financially pay both teams the same amount. The club decided to pay equally the Men’s and Women’s team players. It just did not stop at pay. They get to use the same pitch, gym and other facilities.
“We were in a position to launch that in the summer of 2017, under Equality FC banner. We looked at partners who had similar values and beliefs, who’re prepared to invest time, resources or financially into the club to help us grow.”
The club got lot of media attention. But there were a set of people who believed that such an initiative will dilute the focus on the Men’s team. Interestingly, 12 months later Men’s team was promoted first time in 10 years.
Lewes FC made an application to join the second tier championship under the new structure FA put together for Women’s football. The club was successful in this and joined the first ever Women’s championship alongside Tottenham Spurs FC, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Manchester United. Lewes FC was really excited that a small club from Sussex will get a chance to play with the big clubs.
The Women’s team did not get relegated that season and Men’s team had by then moved to the 7th division.
“We have 1700 owners now. Every person on the board is elected by the owners. Now we have some big commercial partners as well.”
Courtesy Covid, the Men’s season was severely impacted for the last two years. Women’s team could play only 2 games in front of the fans but finished 5th behind Liverpool FC, Sheffield United, Leicester City . Lewes FC Women’s team won against Leicester City 1-0 in April 2021.
The upcoming season is going to be an exciting one for Lewes FC. They have appointed a new management team for the Men’s team and will be looking for promotion. The aim for Women’s team is to play in the WSL in the next two years.
“We had around 100 applications for the manager post and when we announced Toni as our manager, people realised how serious we are about this season. Women’s team also had 4 new players joining us during Christmas who are really good – Ini Umotong, Ashworth Clifford, Mollie Rouse. They have made a huge difference and now we look like scoring going forward. We now go to games thinking we can Win this.”
” Whatever we do, we want to be the biggest or the revolutionary ones causing a new movement. We want to be seen as exemplary on the biggest stage. For us that means fighting for Equality in sports, equalize the prize money.”
The Women’s team are currently semi professional and is like part time players. Many of the players are studying, some are working in the sports industry. They train 3 days a week in the evening time. Next season they are moving to daytime training, from 9 am to 11:30 am on all 5 days.
Due to Brexit, it has become difficult to bring players from overseas. So that is an added challenge for Lewes FC.
The Lewes FC Women’s team is on a euphoric journey. It was a dream come true for the club and all the players when they got the opportunity to play against Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspurs, etc.
” Exciting times ahead for the club. The history is important for us, at the same time we are focused on the future”
It is great to see the way in which club management and players have raised to the occasion. They have played two super leagues teams and were defeated by just slender margin, lost to Arsenal 0-2 and the current WSL champions Chelsea 0-1.
The Women’s team added 3-4 new players last season and they have made an impact. With some good 2-3 new signings more, I think Lewes FC can move up in the league.
“We are not intimidated or overwhelmed by the big names. It is just another game for us.”added Stuart about the experience of playing against bigger teams.
Before the start of the the new season, Lewes FC has appointed a new GM for the Women’s team. The club has also announced a new CEO.
When players, teams and clubs across the globe are fighting to get a parity in regard with pay , here is a club from a small town in Sussex who are breaking even the playing field.
It is not going to be easy. The thought process have to go a seesaw change. This will never happen unless brands, commercials, media, clubs, associations and finally spectators give due recognition to Men’s and Women’s football teams.
FIFA recently published the first ever analysis of the Elite Women’s football landscape. The report said – “Boosting the development and growth of women’s football – on and off the pitch – is a key commitment and top priority for FIFA.” Hope it will help to make an impact not just at the Elite level but also at the grass root , non-league and semi professional level.
For now , Lewes FC have got 1733 owners from 36 countries and they hope to become the club with the highest number of owners. With the revolutionary thought and a focused approach, Lewes FC is definitely going to attain many firsts in the coming years.
It was great talking to Stuart Fuller and understanding the amazing work done at the club. When people come together there is nothing that cannot be achieved.
For now , it is the pre season games, preparation and the beginning of a new season for Lewes FC.
If you want to be become an owner of Lewes FC click here.