Lewes took a simple decision to treat both teams the same, in every regard. And the results are remarkable. It is no surprise that organisations from all over the world – from other football clubs to multi-national businesses – now come to Lewes and to Maggie for help as they seek new ways to address equality, diversity and inclusivity.
Lewes is also attracting significant sponsorship deals on the back of their levelling up experience – far bigger than a club of their size would normally justify – with corporate partners that see the value of being associated with their story, and with businesses that want to have a positive impact on the world.
Despite the exemplary success Lewes FC has had with their vision for equality, Maggie’s ultimate goal is to effect institutional change on a much wider scale. For example, in their published Club Strategy – a case study in strategic corporate planning and objective setting that would proudly sit on websites of companies one hundred times their size – Lewes states unequivocally that one of their goals – and an indicator of their success and impact – is realising ‘parity in FA Cup prize money’. Currently the club that wins the men’s FA Cup receives a £1.8m prize, while the women’s winners are paid out only £25,000. In fact, less than 2% of the overall FA Cup prize money is available to women’s teams. “We’ve actually managed to lobby quite successfully on that front,” Maggie says. “The FA have pledged to increase the women’s prize pot tenfold as of next season.”
Although a considerable triumph, it’s not enough, and Maggie is determined to continue the fight for equal prize pots across all competitions. “Without even distribution of prize money, it’s almost impossible for clubs to justify splitting their own funds equally; they need to be given an incentive.” The second half of this game will most certainly be one to watch.
Football with purpose
Whilst Maggie’s goal to realise equality in football is a substantial one, it’s not the only thing she’s chasing: “At the moment, Lewes is the best club you’ve never heard of, but we’re hoping to change that. My goal is for Lewes to become the most-owned club in the world”. Lewes is a fan-owned club. The Directors of the club are all owners and ownership is open to anyone who wants to show their support. As such, the Lewes fan base is an unusual mix of local football supporters to global human rights activists, and everyone in between.
First and foremost, being fan-owned – in a similar vein to employee-owned businesses – is a structure that ensures purpose is aligned with the interests of the most important stakeholders. But for Maggie, there’s a financial strategy at play too. “We’re hoping to get to the stage where we can be financially sustainable from owners alone.,” Maggie explains. This would mean the club would be indebted to nobody other than its fans, which allows it to operate entirely the way its values dictate it should. This gives rise to a stronger culture and a more positive environment, which both drive growth and success.
There are constraints to this model, however, especially in terms of the club’s ability to raise investment finance. But this is not a hinderance for Maggie, who instead sees fan ownership as unlocking the handcuffs shackled to many traditional clubs by their investors.
“It would be easier if I could go to the board or external investors to lobby for more funding,” she says, “but it forces us to be innovative, to be special and unique, and to be as sustainable as possible… and thus avoid the boom and bust experienced by so many football clubs.”
The established – and much maligned – argument is that a company (including a football club) is owned by its shareholders. But in football, is that really the case? “Look at Chelsea, or Newcastle,” Maggie suggests. “Who owns them? Is it Abramovich, the Saudis, or the fans? The fans would make a claim for the latter, so what we’re trying to do is to close the gap.”
As a Community Benefit Society, Lewes is, “A not-for-profit organisation with a written responsibility to contribute to community.” Becoming an owner gives fans access to a number of benefits, most notably Lewes’ monthly ‘Townhalls’, and a vote to appoint the board of directors. This democratic framework ensures fans are consistently involved in the club’s governance, and feeds into another major facet of Maggie’s leadership that she first developed during her advocacy work: “I learned a lot about the importance of transparency in human rights, and as a CEO I’m really trying to be as transparent and accountable as I can.”
Transparency ensures those in charge of an organisation continue to adhere to the business’s core values, which is the only way to cultivate trust, from within and outside the organisation. To ensure Maggie and her team are held broadly accountable – and trusted – by the fans, they recently published an ambitious Club Strategy. With three strategic pillars focused on the core activity of the club – quality winning football, full financial sustainability, and exemplary facilities for fans and players and a fourth concerning its impact on fans and the community.
But it is their fifth strategic pillar that most aptly demonstrates the real purpose of Lewes Football Club: ‘Impact on the World’, where ridding the sport of gambling adverts is an ambition alongside equalising FA Cup prize money and supporting others in reaching their diversity and equality goals. “We prefer to set aspirational, brave targets that cause us to stretch, rather than targets that are easily achieved and show little drive.”