Lewes FC is leading the world in refusing to accept the myths about women’s football.
The only football club in the world to have equal playing budgets for men and women is not in Scandinavia, but in Lewes, East Sussex, where Thomas Paine wrote his first political work.
Like Paine, Lewes Football Club is starting a revolution that has global implications.
Women Football’s: The 50 Years Ban
Women’s football is a political issue.
Few people realise that it is no accident that women’s football is relatively weak in the UK. From 1921 to 1971, women were banned from playing in the grounds of any Football Association clubs. Player and club budgets are derisory and media attention a fraction of the men’s game.
We use football as an engine to drive social change.Karen Dobres, Lewes FC
This 50 years ban was the authorities’ (in other words: men’s) response to the runaway success of women in football during and after the First World War, when – with men away in the trenches – women’s teams built up huge crowds which continued to grow after the war. The Boxing Day match between Preston Ladies FC and St Helen’s Ladies, drew 53,000 spectators at Goodison Park, with another 14,000 queuing outside, unable to get in. Many of this crowd were women who were keen supporters, belying the myth that women’s football can’t be popular.
These 50 lost years killed a culture of women’s football in the UK, which is still felt today.
Although the FA eventually lifted the ban, the long-term effects are summed up by the fact that the men’s FA Cup prize money is £3.6 million and the women’s FA Cup still only £25,000.
Fast forward to 2017 when Lewes Football club – which was rescued from bankruptcy by its local community in 2010 – decided that women’s football had as much potential as men’s football and should be given a chance to succeed.
The new community owners were determined not to take the paternalistic approach of a ‘junior’ women’s side, like the Premier League clubs.
From the outset, the new management wanted Lewes FC to represent the whole community equally. They decided to give equal budgets to the men’s and the women’s team including for marketing. This initiative has shown that women’s football has just as much potential support as men’s.
These 50 lost years killed a culture of women’s football in the UK.
At last season’s match against Manchester United’s Women team, the team attracted a gate of around 2,000, near its capacity. Indeed, the average gate for the Women’s team is only just behind that for men. For a small club, it is doing rather well, competing in the Championship League and aiming to get promoted to the highest tier – the Super League – next year. But, results are only part of the story.
“We use football as an engine to drive social change,” Karen Dobres of Lewes FC, explains. “By changing the world for football players and fans, we change it within the wider culture way beyond the pitch.”
Lewes’ women’s team is not trying to emulate the men’s team, and it is not afraid to take a feminist approach. They invited Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, to talk before one of the matches last December and often visit local schools to use football to empower girls.
Encouraging a Hidden Group of Supporters
Through its marketing, Lewes FC has found a hidden group of female supporters who were not previously interested in football.
If replicated nationally, millions of women could be encouraged to support women’s football, but marketing budgets are few and paltry as all the money is hoarded in the men’s game. Hence the vicious circle: there is no money to market and develop the women’s game, so few women support it, meaning there is no commercial potential.
Going to a women’s match at Lewes is a very different experience than for most men’s football. Perhaps it is how football would have developed if women hadn’t been banned for 50 years.
The men’s FA Cup prize money is £3.6 million and the women’s FA Cup still only £25,000.
At Lewes, children under 16 go free and there is free face-painting, to give their parents time to go to the Prosecco Bar. The corporate boxes are four beach huts with beautiful views of the South Downs as well as the pitches.
But, don’t think that women’s football is a quiet affair. Lewes FC runs women’s chanting workshops and has its own songbook of specially composed chants.
50/50 Media Campaign
The revolution at Lewes doesn’t stop here.
Currently, women’s sport only has a 5% share of all sports coverage. Lack of money and attention have been the two ways that women’s sport been suppressed. Lewes FC isn’t prepared to accept this or even incremental change. So, it is doing something about it.
“We are asking the media to commit to 50/50 reporting on men’s and women’s sports,” Karen Dobres says, insisting: “It’s only fair and anything else is just not cricket.”
The campaign will be launched at Byline Festival, this August Bank Holiday. Media organisations will be asked to pledge to the 50/50 commitment.
Byline Times is the first media organisation to pledge.
Thomas Paine would have approved of this revolution in Women’s football and sport, which is coming from his home town.