Lewes FC: Football to drive social change Calendar

29 Jul 2020

A small market town in East Sussex has a football club boasting big ideas.

Fabulously fan-owned and focused on its community, this is the only club on the planet to treat its women’s and men’s teams equally. Same pay, same budget, same stadium, same everything.

They are based at an iconic ground – boasting modern terraces alongside beach huts, where fans enjoy vegan pies and prosecco on tap.

One of the club’s shirts features in the museum’s Strip! How Football Got Shirty exhibition.

We speak to Karen Dobres, Co-Director at the revolutionary Lewes FC…

How does it feel to celebrate a decade of being a fan-owned club?

It feels good, but like we’ve still got a little way to go.

We still have all the energy, passion and belief of a start-up high on life. But despite having over 1500 owners across 31 countries, we have yet to start a mass ownership ’movement’ and beat Barcelona who are on 150K.

We want to become the most-owned club in the world, so we’re aiming for 151K at least.

That ambition might sound crazy now, but everyone said Lewes were nuts when we introduced budget parity for our men’s and women’s teams back in July 2017. That turned out to be one of the sanest decisions the club ever made – both morally and economically.

As Herbie Hancock (an American pianist) says, ‘It’s only the people who are crazy enough to think they can change it, who actually change the world’.

What does it mean to have the supporters own and run the club?

Our club is 100% community-owned and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

It means an awful lot of soul-searching, heart-warming and awkward conversations, and learning how to be polite and respectful.

And ‘we’ – the football club – are the ‘we’ you see right there in the middle of the name ‘LeWEs’!

We all own The Dripping Pan – it’s our home, our fortress, our pride and joy. From the old flint walls, to the rolling downs overlooking us, to the vegan pies and the prosecco on tap, we love the Pan and all have a stake in it.

Each owner pays £40 a year (or more if they can) to have one share, one vote (for directors who are elected from among the ownership) and various benefits.

Community-ownership sets our agenda as a Board of Directors. We are not trying to squeeze profits above all else for shareholders, we are trying to create value for the community which owns us – after all, we are beholden to them.

Therefore, the club uses football as a vehicle for social change.

We all know the beautiful game has an incredible influence over hearts and minds globally.  There are some 3.5 billion football fans around the world – so it would be a shame not to use this influence for the greater good.

You have local charities on the club’s shirts as opposed to betting companies. What was the thinking behind that?

We look for ways in which we can be exemplary.

This mission saw us introduce equal playing budgets for our two first teams back in July 2017, and also saw us challenge the fact that football was promoting gambling on footballers’ shirts, on stadia hoardings and in video games.

As a socially-owned initiative we want to promote good causes in the community when we can.

We’re a campaigning club – we like a cause, and we like activism, and we believe in deeds not words.

If we can raise awareness for people and groups doing good stuff, then we will. We need money to be sustainable, but we wont accept sponsors at any cost – they say a principle isn’t a principle until it’s been tested and we sat that test and knocked it out of the park.

We love people. We love community. We love football.

We won’t use football to hurt our community – we will use football to nurture it. Our club is a community asset and we want to take every opportunity we can to show it.

In 2017 you became the world’s first football club to give equal pay to both men and women’s teams…

We most certainly did.

We also spend a lot of time explaining the history of women’s football to critics of our equality initiative, to instil in them an understanding of the fact that there is NO level playing field for women footballers.

It’s led to us coining the term ‘male football privilege’ (MFP), which, as with any kind of privilege, comes through no fault or effort of one’s own.

When women were banned from playing on FA pitches or training with FA affiliated coaches back in 1921, the women’s game was decimated overnight.

At the time of the ban when the then all-male FA pronounced the game as ‘highly unsuitable for females’, women’s football was drawing crowds in their tens of thousands – more than men’s.

The ban lasted for 50 years during which time the iconography of men’s football was created and imprinted on this country’s culture, and the all-important broadcasting rights were sold.

Girls didn’t play football in school playgrounds because it was ‘for boys’ and there were no female footballers to capture their imaginations or fire their dreams. They had WAGS to emulate, of course, but let’s just say this is hard sentence to write.

Similar bans were put in place in countries around the world: France banned women from playing in 1932, Spain 1935, Brazil 1941, and Germany 1955.

So, boys and men have MFP and women and girls are not starting from an even playing field. Maybe we should be thinking of ‘investment’ in the women’s game as ‘reparations’?

What else sets you apart?

The magical atmosphere at The Dripping Pan. The warmth and humour of our fans. The welcome you get when you come through the turnstiles. We’re very proud of The Dripping Pan, and are one of the few football clubs situated in a National Park with rolling downs overlooking us.

Lewes is the historic county town of Sussex, known for its castle, Tom Paine, the biggest, most serious Bonfire Night in the world, and a certain rebellious spirit.

And, of course, we’re nicknamed the Rooks, after the wonderful black, grey-beaked corvids who nest in the high trees around the Pan.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the club?

Like all football clubs we’ve suffered from a loss of match day revenues.

Our men’s team, who play in the 7th tier Isthmian league, had their season cancelled and expunged, while for our women, who play at elite level in the Championship, the season was finished on a points-per-game basis with promotion and relegation.

We are sustained by the income coming in from ownership revenues, so our social ownership model provides us with some welcome stability in these turbulent times.

However, we were due to upgrade our pitch, replace our ageing floodlights, and build some loos for our famous bar ‘The Rook Inn’, and Covid-related lack of income meant that this was looking impossible.

I’m delighted to say that our community supported us in a Crowdfunder, and so we are able to do those essential jobs, and benefit from floodlights, each of which will be named after much-loved family members, fans and inspirational figures across football and culture.

As preparations for the new season start, it is clear that essential hygiene and safety-related arrangements cost a lot, but we are hoping that we may be able to have limited, socially-distanced crowds phased-in as lockdown is eased across the country.

What community work have you done to help?

During lockdown we ran a ‘Helperizer’ (trademarked by fellow director Roger I think!).

This was organised to give back to our community who are so supportive of the club, and saw players, staff, directors and supporters shopping, collecting medicines, or simply having a conversation on the phone with members of our community who needed help or could simply do with a chat.

It’s clear that many of us attend matches as much as anything for the human connection of uniting behind our teams. During lockdown it’s been so important for everyone’s mental health to stay in touch and maintain connection.

So, we’ve also piled lots of content into our weekly Owners’ Newsletter, which is fun and conversational in tone, and has hopefully been a friendly reminder to our owners that we’re still around, still fighting the good fight, and ready to get back on the pitch as soon as we can safely do so.

We’ve also run a ‘Home Heroes’ initiative, whereby any child who has been particularly helpful round the house during lockdown can be nominated for a special ‘Thank you’ and a pen from all of us at Lewes FC.

It’s been wonderful to see pictures of the happy faces as they are sent in, and reading the nominations has melted our hearts – there are some truly amazing, caring and resilient kids in our community!

In town, first team players and members of our men’s and women’s Vets teams also regularly stood outside the town’s supermarkets as part of Lewes’ ‘Coronavirus Volunteers’ group, to encourage people to donate to local foodbanks.

I’m also delighted to report that during lockdown, some Japanese fans surprised us by starting a very professional ‘Lewes FC Owners’ Club’ in Tokyo.

What does the future hold for Lewes?

In the immediate future we will continue to promote the benefits of valuing women’s football equally to men’s. We know that progress made in raising the profile of the women’s game is at risk of being lost because of the pandemic.

Media coverage of women’s sports has declined and it was only elite mens’ football that got to finish their season, so all visibility of women’s football was lost.

Therefore we must keep striving to attract great female players to Lewes, to signal to girls that football is for them too, and to attract even more new girl and women fans to our matches, once crowds are allowed again.

Generally speaking though, the future is as big as our vision – and that is enormous.

We aim to attract more investment so that we can see our women get into the WSL, and our men climb the leagues. The higher our teams get, the bigger the platform for our message of equality; the louder our message, the more owners, sponsors and fans will be attracted towards us; the more attention and resources we attract, the higher our game quality will be.

We want to be playing winning, quality football on the largest possible stage, and, as I mentioned, eventually become the most-owned club in the world.

If people want to be part of the  Lewes story what can they do? 

I’d like to invite all football lovers, who believe in a level playing field, and fancy helping us change the course of history, to join us and become owners of Lewes FC.

There are no limits on either our vision or our community, and we’d love to have you along for the ride. After all, one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that we are all connected, and that the most important thing in life is that we value and look after each other and treat each other with respect.

Joining Lewes FC is a vote for not only for great football and community values, it’s also a vote for a new kind of normal exemplified by a truly beautiful game.