5 years ago Lewes FC made history as the first – and still only – football club in the world to split their revenue equally between their men’s and women’s teams. Same pay. Same pitches. Same quality of coaching and medical staff. Same marketing investment.
For this month’s Three Things Podcast we invited All Together member and Lewes CEO Maggie Murphy to share the extraordinary results that followed this decision, discuss more generally her vision of Football with Purpose, and ask for her Three Things – Three pieces of actionable advice that CEOs can implement today in their business.
Maggie Murphy spent much of her childhood as an unlikely fan of football on the Isle of Wight. Time after time she watched players like Paul Gascoigne dance past opponents before unleashing a shot, and time after time she saw her fellow Spurs supporters erupt in raptures as the net rippled. She longed to play for a team herself, but with no girls’ teams close by, her only opportunity was at school.
Unfortunately, in a place where an appetite for sport should have been encouraged regardless of gender, it was here that Maggie first encountered the unjust underbellies of sport and society.
“Not only did we have to travel further and pay more than boys to get to games, but when we got there we were always being given the worst pitch, hand-me-down kits, and referees that were ‘too old to officiate on boys’ games’. We were even blocked from playing tournaments if the boys weren’t going because it was seen as if we shouldn’t be going without them!”
Instead of dampening Maggie’s passion for the sport however, these early experiences of “casual discrimination” entwined with her sense of justice, and inspired her to strive for change. “What I know now, but perhaps didn’t so much at the time, was that I was beginning to develop a deep focus on equality and fairness.”
From advocacy to management
Maggie Murphy’s CV //
2008-2011: UNPO – Programme Manager
2011-2012: Amnesty International – Assistant Advocate
2013-2018: Transparency International – Senior Global Advocacy Manager
2018-2019: Sport Integrity Global Alliance – Director of Public Policy and Sport Integrity
2017-Present: Equal Playing Field – Director of Communications
2021-Present: Lewes FC – CEO
Maggie found more opportunity to play football at Oxford, where she was awarded a varsity blue. While known for her crunching tackles and leadership of the defence, it was Maggie’s passion for fairness and equality that flourished the most during this time. “I had a natural curiosity about the world,” she recalls. “When all my friends [studying modern languages] were going to Lyon or Paris, for instance, I chose to visit Senegal, where I worked for a human rights organisation helping sex workers.”
Football may have introduced Maggie to the world of inequality and injustice, but it was these experiences around the world that deepened her commitment to the broader justice agenda: “I was able to figure out where and why the system wasn’t working for people, which really gave me some perspective.”
Unsurprisingly, Maggie launched herself in to a career in human rights and advocacy after Oxford, working with extraordinary organisations, from Amnesty International and the United Nations, to Transparency International as a Senior Advocacy Manager on anti-corruption. For the next thirteen years, Maggie worked tirelessly for disadvantaged and disenfranchised peoples around the world. Impressively, she managed to maintain her passion for football throughout that period, playing whenever she could, and advocating for equality in the sport at the same time.
“I played for women’s teams all over the world,” she says. “Some of my best memories are from when I played in Africa, but discrimination and corruption were always there, under the surface.”
“I met a woman who’d just won the league, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at her,” she recalls. “I asked why she wasn’t happy, and she told me about a man from the Football Association. He came into their changing room, took their prize money, and said he would look after it for them. They never saw that money again.” Initially, Maggie thought that such shocking acts of corruption must have been rare, but the more women she spoke to, the more common they became: “I can give you six or seven examples of people I know who have experienced similar things, it wasn’t an isolated incident.”
It was becoming increasingly frustrating for Maggie that the sport she loved so much was a microcosm of the patriarchal edifice she was attempting to erode in her day job. “I’ve seen throughout my career how disempowering it can be to not have access to information and decision making,” she claims. “And the similarities were there in my role as a female footballer. Decisions were always being made about us, never with us.”
In 2017, however, while scrolling through the endless ether of 140-word thoughts, Maggie stumbled across a tweet that changed her outlook on football forever. A football club she’d never heard of, from a place she didn’t know – Lewes FC – had decided to split its revenue equally between its male and female teams.
“I can’t describe the hope and optimism I felt when I read that tweet. I needed them to know that I saw them and backed them. Three clicks later and I was an owner of the club.” Although her busy life made it impossible to support the club in the flesh, she kept a close eye on its progress. Little did she know that Lewes also had their eye on her.
Just 18 months later, Maggie received a call that would change her career – and life – unimaginably. A Director from Lewes FC offered her the position of General Manager of the women’s team. “They had put their money where their mouth was”, explains Maggie, “and I knew I had to do the same.” The opportunity to make change happen from within, for an organisation whose values and advocacy for fairness and equality aligned so closely with her own, compelled Maggie to accept. And so, in July of 2019, Maggie Murphy became the General Manager of Lewes FC’s women’s team, a role she would upgrade to CEO (of the entire club) just two years later.
A game of two halves
Lewes’ decision to evenly distribute its funds across the entire club levelled the playing field like no club in history (sadly, they are still the only one to have done so). Since then, both the men’s and women’s teams have been promoted, attendance at the women’s games has quadrupled, and both teams have ambitions for promotion again in the seasons to come.
This success has been mirrored in the clubs finances. Revenue has multiplied an incredible five times, and what is more impressive still is where that money comes from. “The women’s side does generate a lot more sponsorship now,” Maggie reveals. In a world where men’s football tends to be seen as ’subsidising’ the women’s game – an interpretation Maggie dislikes intensely – it seems that Lewes FC’s women’s team now effectively subsidises the men’s.
That all this success stems from one simple and bold move is a powerful case study for businesses of all shapes and sizes attempting to address the gender pay gap. “But it isn’t all about pay”, Maggie explains. “It’s about the environment of equality we’re creating at the club.” There must be equal investment across every blade of grass, not just in terms of pay, if that environment is to succeed.
“I see too many people just wearing the t-shirt”, she laments. “Do it properly. Be bold. You have to spend as much on marketing the women’s games as you do the men’s, make sure they play on the same pitch, train with the same facilities, charge the same ticket prices. It’s about cultural and behavioural change; it takes time, and that’s why just wearing the t-shirt doesn’t work.”
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.”
Lewes’ aims are bold, brave, and downright brilliant. The success it has seen in pursuit of equality thus far is nothing short of spectacular, and the work it does in support of other, wider-reaching initiatives are staunch indicators of its CEO’s incredible drive to achieve tangible, positive change not just within the sport, but throughout society as a whole.
We concluded our conversation with Maggie in the same way we do with all of our guests, by asking Maggie to reflect on everything we’d discussed – even things we didn’t have time for – and pick just Three Things – three pieces of actionable advice that CEOs should implement today.
Stand for something.
“Having a clear purpose and set of values will make you unique,” Maggie argues. “You will have a differentiating factor which people will trust you for, and trust is so important.” For companies searching for their purpose, Maggie suggests a good place to start is defining and implementing a moral compass for your business. Use it as a mechanism for making good decisions and stick by it.
Test your values as soon as you can.
“A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you. You have to ask what you would do that, despite its cost to your business, would let you go to sleep at night feeling good,” she explains. And test yourself early on – don’t make excuses because of limited resources or scale. Taking a tough, principled decision will institutionalise your values and build trust with employees, customers and all stakeholders. As an example, Maggie reflected on a sponsorship proposal Lewes received from a gambling company that, “would have been the most profitable in the club’s history”. Not only did Maggie reject the offer, she was inspired to do the direct opposite, and Lewes now work hand in hand with charities that support those affected by gambling-related suicide.
Check your KPIs.
“You have to make sure your KPIs are applicable,” Maggie says. As powerful as KPIs can be to incentivise behaviour and drive decision making, the unintended consequences of poorly thought through KPIs can be disastrous. “Revenue from Lewes’ men’s games, for example, is generated predominantly by the bar, but if we apply those same measurements of success to the women’s games, which take place earlier and on Sundays, we’d be setting ourselves up to fail because we’ve used the wrong KPIs.”
Similarly, corporate sponsors at Lewes look beyond traditional metrics such as match attendance, and consider everything, from the legion of fan owners across the world, to the potential internal and external value from associating with Lewes and their extraordinary story. New and original ideas rarely resemble more established ideas enough to warrant judging their success in the same way. You have to be patient and understand how new ideas work first, then settle on how to appropriately measure their success.