Lewes equality campaign takes football world by storm

Male and female Lewes footballers (publicity photo for the club's Equality FC campaign), July 2017 (Photo: James Boyes)

Lewes are the talk of football after launching their campaign to bring women’s funding in line with the men’s (Photo: James Boyes)

Ever since Lewes declared to the world that they were going to be “the first professional or semi-professional club to pay its women’s team the same as its men’s team” they have been caught up in a whirlwind of publicity and acclaim.

That publicity machine has been a little slow in delivering some answers to important questions posed by Sent Her Forward.

But with a little help from one of the club’s owners – and an e-mail with answers of sorts from the company handling their media requests – here is Sent Her Forward‘s take on a historic week in the life of Lewes Community Football Club.

It’s seen Lewes lead the way towards a brave new world of equality of reward despite – at the moment – inequality in generation of the money to provide it, where the principle of treating females equally and providing players of both sexes with the same opportunities to excel, is more important than bickering about who deserves it more.

Indeed, Lewes’s approach appears to be chiming with the enlightened philosophy of the world at large, where equal opportunity is becoming a given.

But it’s not without risks, as some highly respected figures in the world of female football outline below.

If the Lewes plan works as the board envisages, the world of football will have changed so much by the time the current pledges have been cashed in that funding parity will no longer turn heads – certainly not like they have been turned this week.

If it doesn’t, and benevolent, wealthy donors no longer have the will – or resources – to continue to subsidise the set-up, Lewes may have to rethink their strategy… probably not with quite the fanfare that accompanied their announcement this week, when the football world turned its eyes on the East Sussex town.

See also

Lewes director wants level playing field for men and women
West Ham ‘sex discrimination’ row could kick-start revolution

Board with ‘can-do’ approach delivers on equality promise

Lewes's Dripping Pan ground, 2015 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Lewes Women are one of the few Premier League teams who play at their club’s home stadium

Lewes have put their money where their mouths are and made a director’s public pledge to provide equal funding for the men’s and women’s teams a reality.

The progressive community club announced this week that they are providing identical budgets for both genders in the coming season – representing a huge increase in the women’s allocation and once again lifting to new heights the positive profile of the Sussex outfit.

Lewes have formed a separate campaigning organisation, Equality FC, to help implement the changes and try to generate the public funding necessary to sustain the fulfilment of the pledge, to make the club the only professional or semi-professional one to invest equal amounts in their male and female squads.

It’s an ambitious step, given that the huge positive publicity it has engineered adds to the pressure to maintain the funding policy beyond the initial three seasons – which the club are confident of achieving, with the expectation of a markedly different operating environment by 2020.

The kudos is enormous – but so will be the scrutiny.

Last season, around 90% of the playing budget – more than £70,000 – went to the men’s squad, whose first team play in Division One South of the Isthmian League – the eighth tier of the men’s game in England.

The rapid unanimous board decision to enact the proposal speaks volumes for the support his idea enjoyed and the commitment and can-do attitude that pervades the club

A figure closer to £7,000 – was spent on the women’s three squads – the first team, who play in the FAW Premier League, in tier three, the development squad and the foundation squad.

In addition, the club has a partnership with Cardinal Newman School to run a girls’ football academy.

The pioneering club, who are owned by their supporters, already provide a level of support for the women’s section that is the envy of others – the first team play their home games at the club’s Dripping Pan ground – and the board is highly supportive of the women’s involvement in the club.

The equal-funding idea was first aired publicly last October, when Ed Ramsden, one of the club’s directors, pledged that if he were re-elected to the board he would champion the idea of funding parity – something several of his fellow directors supported and echoed in their own addresses.

Indeed, at such a pioneering, forward-looking club he was pushing at an open door.

Georgia Bridges, of Lewes Women FC, and Alex Mallins, of Lewes FC, July 2017 (Photo: James Boyes)

Equal pay for equal play? (Photo: James Boyes)

Director of women’s football and former Lewes Ladies manager Jacquie Agnew suggested this week that the seeds of the idea had been sown some time ago and that the announcement was the culmination of “a year’s work behind the scenes”.

With barely a dissenting word uttered in the world of women’s football – though some reservations voiced among supporters of the club’s men’s team – Ramsden was, unsurprisingly, re-elected – along with several others who had voiced their own commitment to equality – and the rapid unanimous board decision to enact the proposal speaks volumes for the support his idea enjoyed and the commitment and can-do attitude that pervades the club.

Sent Her Forward understands that Ramsden is reluctant to take a high profile amid the global fascination in the story.

But it was his trailblazing manifesto – and the largely positive reaction it enjoyed around the world of women’s football – that was surely the catalyst for this week’s announcement, and on which, in the absence of detailed responses on behalf of the club, I have based much of this article.

I fully support the move to bring parity to what the club spends on women’s football so that we can begin to end the indefensible inequality of treatment that women’s football receives throughout this country – fellow director Charles Dobres’ re-election manifesto, October 2016

Ramsden argued in his election pitch that his equal-pay initiative could be “entirely self-funding through revenue we would not have earned had we not made the change”.

And that already appears to be paying dividends as the whirlwind of international publicity that accompanied the club’s announcement has produced a queue of people keen to join the Lewes revolution as co-owners and no doubt many more willing to invest in or sponsor a club that is seen to be in tune with the times.

For female players to have the same rewards as their male counterparts for doing the same job is a fantastic leap forward for women’s football. This sends a powerful signal to not only our players and our club, but to the whole UK football community that women’s football deserves an equal voice and support to men’s – John Donoghue, manager, Lewes Women

The club have not given me any figures, but Ramsden’s manifesto last October declared: “The playing budget for our men’s team is 10 times the budget for our women’s team.”

The figures on the club’s official website at the time suggested there were 900 owners.

Mr Ramsden’s election pitch suggested more than 1,200, although the press release distributed by media Company Finsbury on Lewes’s behalf this week said there were now 1,100 owners, each contributing a minimum of £30 annually, meaning £33,000 of the £75,000 estimated to be required to level the playing field on last season’s figures, without reducing the men’s budget, is already accounted for.

He argued: “If 2,500 new owners join, then we will have created the revenue needed to equalise the playing budgets from this alone.”

What the funding will provide

  • Equal resources and access to coaching, performance and strength-and-conditioning staff
  • Access to and use of physiotherapists and their facilities
  • Payment for some players and a removal of the need for any player to pay their own travel or accommodation costs
  • Player recruitment costs
  • Any upgrading of facilities to meet requirements of higher leagues
  • Increased investment in local grassroots initiatives to provide equal opportunities for boys and girls

Of course, things have moved on since then, and while every new owner – and their minimum £30-a-year contribution – will be a welcome addition, the scale of funding required to fulfil the equality pledge means the club are relying heavily on generous donations from anonymous “supportive businesses and individuals”, with the help of their Equality FC campaign.

Moreover, the budgets referred to in Ramsden’s pitch are now probably out of date – the club have not provided specific details but they have said the new budget would put Lewes “on a par with clubs at the top of the Women’s Super League 2”.

The commitment to equality does not stretch as far as to pay every player the same – nor will each of the club’s teams (the women’s section also has a development team and a foundation squad, who play in the South East Counties Women’s League) receive equal shares of the respective budgets. Those in charge of first-team affairs will decide what is needed where.

“We use the same pitch, the same facilities, the same ball. As football fans we all want our team to win regardless of gender. Parity means giving everyone the same opportunity and getting the same rewards – Darren Freeman, manager, Lewes FC

Lewes’s women’s players have not hitherto been paid for playing. Indeed, like most in their league and at lower levels in the football pyramid, they have paid for the privilege of playing, providing much of their own equipment and transport expenses.

It ought to be said that not all of the male players are paid, either.

Paying to play is not necessarily an enormous hardship (or presumably there would not be so many females dying to play).

But it is a reflection of the commitment required and hoops that need to be jumped through for a woman to make her mark at a decent level of football.

Equalisation of budgets in a positive way – in other words, bringing Lewes Women’s budget up to the men’s level rather than forging a compromise in-between – gives them the opportunity to make the grade in a little more comfort, helping them feel even more valued, as well as providing the club with a sudden injection of resources to compete more evenly with – and, indeed, overtake – teams attached to professional men’s outfits.

Today we are one club – we just happen to play in different leagues. The strength of this one club is in its unity and all of the diverse experience that this brings – director of women’s football Jacquie Agnew’s re-election manifesto, October 2016

Ashley Head, one of the club’s owners, told me the depth of response to Wednesday’s announcement had taken everybody by surprise – and it has been overwhelmingly positive.

“There is no limit to this,” he said. “If the budgets rise to a suitable level, facilities improvements can be made, jointly funded, as both sections will benefit.”

Of course, not everybody agrees with the principle, which some see as an unfair subsidy from the men’s team, who currently attract markedly bigger gates, and doubt the club’s ability to sustain the venture after the publicity has died down.

But neither are the barbs thrown from some corners – that the move was little more than a gimmick, or that Lewes are trying to buy their way to success – fair.

The Premier League is the gateway to the financial attractions of the Super League and has become increasingly competitive in the past few years, with “parent” clubs injecting more cash into their women’s sections.

By committing to paying our women’s and men’s teams equally, and providing equal resource for coaching, training and facilities, we hope to spark a change across the UK that will help put an end to the excuses for why such a deep pay disparity has persisted in our sport – Jacquie Agnew

Lewes Football Club are trying to compete in what they believe is a more honest and fairer way.

To allocate such a big chunk of the club’s total revenue to the women’s team is a huge move – one that shows faith in the players to make the strides necessary to reach the wonderland of the Super League, where income from match days and sponsorship should more easily aid the levelling of funding required.

But it also sends a message to owners of women’s football clubs everywhere: that it is time for the talking to stop and the action to begin.

Move would be ‘suicidal’ for Premier League clubs

Action from Brighton v Watford, April 16 2017 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Super League Watford’s general manager says clubs like his should wait until they are sure they can sustain bigger budgets

However, those expecting the Lewes model to be copied by admiring clubs all over the world, are in for a disappointment.

For all the praise of Lewes’s pioneering spirit, don’t expect a rush by other clubs to follow suit.

Ed Henderson, general manager of Watford Ladies, who rely heavily on funding from the parent, men’s club, told Sent Her Forward it would be “suicidal” for bigger clubs to follow the Lewes lead.

“It’s important to not overspend and ensure that women’s football builds at its natural pace,” he said. “But fair play to Lewes. If a smaller club is in a position financially where it can afford to pay salaries that match, that is brilliant and should be encouraged.

“Encouraging Premier League clubs to do the same is suicidal, and it’s important that the women’s game reaches a position where it can support such vast amounts.”

‘Another Notts County’

A former chairman of a senior women’s club, who asked for his identity to be withheld, agrees. He told Sent Her Forward: “In international teams, or in unusual situations, like Lewes, I fully support equal resources, etcetera.

“However, in most cases all this policy would do is vastly inflate the wage bill and spending of women’s teams beyond their real income levels, and sooner or later they will be another Notts County LFC [who folded when the men’s club withdrew funding] when the artificial support ends.”

He added: “The reality for most pro clubs is that if you resourced and financed the men’s and women’s teams equally, this would mean a massive drop in budgets for the men’s team. Many would just go out of business as a result.”

The former chairman, who has more than a decade of experience in women’s football, said such a move could actually cost the women’s sections of some clubs support if fans of the men’s team perceived that their side’s chances of success were being hampered by having their share of the funding pared back.

I do not see it happening at a men’s Premier League or Football League club any time soon – and I don’t think it should in the game’s current state – Ed Henderson, interim general manager, Watford Ladies

And he warned that increasing women’s share of club budgets “would hand even greater dominance” to clubs with wealthy backers who could continue to inject huge sums into their set-ups without worrying about the losses.

He added: “I’m a massive fan of women’s football and equal rights, pay, etcetera. But I think the set-up at Lewes is very different, and while it may work there, I cannot see this… catching on at high-level clubs for a very long time.”

Watford chief Henderson warned that rapid investment before the game had settled at Super League level – as has happened at several clubs – was dangerous.

“I think it’s fantastic for the women’s game what Lewes have done. However, I do not see it happening at a men’s Premier League or Football League club any time soon – and I don’t think it should in the game’s current state.”

Henderson added: “The women’s game needs to be sustainable and built up at the right pace. That is what we have done very well at Watford.

Sponsorship deals

“We live within our means but are ambitious at the same time. When the time is right and commercial deals have increased, and more people are watching the games, that is when the players should be earning more money. And we will be able to afford it.”

As at Lewes, Crystal Palace and no doubt many other clubs, Watford’s women’s section does not sit back waiting for the Premier League club to help them out.

They rely on them for funding – which is at record levels for the coming season – and especially from “value in kind”, such as administration, advertising, staff support and accommodation.

But they have also done their own bit, securing a series of sponsorship deals.

Henderson said: “I really want to highlight that we can be attractive for companies commercially and to prove to the club that we are a serious brand in the women’s game, too.”


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