Lewes FC: The world's first and only equal football club

Interview with Karen Dobres & Rhian Cleverly of Lewes Football Club

At the end of last year Lewes Football Club won ‘Best Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Initiative’ at the Business Culture Awards. We wanted to find out more about this inspirational club and initiative, so we sat down with Karen Dobres, Former Director and Ambassador for Lewes FC and Rhian Cleverly, the Captain of the women’s team, to find out what they did to make Lewes FC so special.


The road to 'Equality FC'

In 2010, after financial troubles, Lewes FC was transferred out of private ownership into a mass ownership Community Benefit Society called Lewes Community Football Club – consisting of benefactors and members of the former management committee. It became a not-for-profit club helping pioneer 100% fan and community ownership.

In 2017, Lewes Football Club became the first – and currently only – professional or semi-professional club in the world to start treating its women footballers the same as its men – the same playing budgets, same pitch, same training facilities.

Not only is this fair, but they also think it makes absolute business sense to invest properly behind their two lead products. This initiative earned them the nickname ‘Equality FC’.

There is no doubt that gender and pay equality is needed in society. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at gender pay gap reports, and some of it is quite hideous. If you look across the country, across all sectors, it is predicted it will take 28 years to level up, so how did Lewes achieve this in one of the most male dominated worlds; football?

Karen: Lewes is a small football club on the south coast of England. There are amazing women there, and amazing men there, but what happened, and something that people I think need to know if they want to replicate this in other industries or the same industry, was that it was started by two men. This is important because football is a male bastion, men have the power; they’re usually the majority on boards, in decision-making positions and they usually earn more money, as we know.

So why was equality introduced at Lewes FC? Because when the club was mutualised in 2009, it became clearer that the club was a community asset, and that we were beholden to our community, rather than to private shareholders. Therefore, every decision that we would make on the board should reflect our whole community, not just half of the community.

They needed even more of a nudge than community ownership though – don’t forget that this was a history-making world first – and the second nudge was that the women’s team were doing brilliantly. Under the leadership of Jackie Agnew, they were winning every match.

On the board, it led the two men in question to ask, “Hang on, it’s coming around to budget time….” (When the women were doing so well and at that time, the men not so well) “…How come we’re giving more money to the men than the women? It doesn’t really make sense. It’s not fair and we are supposed to be for our whole community, not just some of it.” So, a business decision was taken, it wasn’t just a moral decision, because they realised that if we pay the women the same as the men, we are going to make national, even international headlines, which we did. We are going to attract more owners and that going forward is our financial sustainability sorted. The more ownerships we get, the more long-term we have this regular income coming in, and with a 97% retention rate on owners. It’s brilliant.”


Breaking the mould

Football has aways been dominated by men, even to the point that the Football Association banned women from playing at their members’ grounds between 1921 and 1970.  Women’s football is battling decades of embedded beliefs and behaviours.

Karen: “Of course it’s a male-dominated sport, but even some women who have been brought up with men’s football as their cultural reference, they often ape men and ape the way that men’s football is done. They don’t necessarily mean to; they don’t realise it but that’s what they’ve been taught. So, at Lewes FC, we are having to undo layers and layers of sexism and conditioning, using football. We use football as our platform, as our vehicle for social change. So, what we say is that we are “fans of change”. Any decision that we make, we can check our behaviour by saying, is this what a fan of change would do?”


A 4x increase in game attendance

When the club introduced equal playing budgets and resources for the women, they also evolved the experience for fans. Karen calls it ‘the feminisation of the match day experience’.

They introduced Prosecco on tap and turned a beach hut (their version of a corporate box) into a nail bar. They held women’s football chanting practice before matches and Suffragette flash mobs.

Through this innovation, by changing the culture and the behaviours of the club, they succeeded in quadrupling the gate figure within 2 seasons of launching ‘Equality FC’.

Photo: Packed stands & beach huts. Credit: James Boyes


Through this innovation, by changing the culture and the behaviours of the club, they succeeded in quadrupling the gate figure within 2 seasons of launching ‘Equality FC’.


Attracting the best talent

Karen: “We’ve attracted great people across the board, on the men’s side, we’ve got the most amazing group now. I mean, one of them, midfielder Bradley Pritchard started a community garden within our ground. They’re fans of change. We’re doing things to create value for our community.”

When it comes to attracting notable talent, look no further than their team captain, Rhian Cleverly. Rhian took on the captaincy at Lewes in the 2020/21 season and cleaned up all the awards: Coaches’ Player of the Season, Supporters’ Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season. That season also was the highest the club have ever finished since it was set up in 2002, finishing 5th in the Women’s Championship. Rhian remembers the journey…

Photo: Rhian Cleverly. Credit: James Boyes


Rhian: “I would have been in America when this equality stance started in 2017. I was on a scholarship in New York, and I remember seeing this news article about this little club on the south coast. I thought it was amazing! I had never heard of Lewes before, and I never thought I’d end up playing there. After America, I played in France but I got released at the end of the season. I decided to go closer to home, so I reached out to all the clubs in the FA Women’s Championship, and Lewes just stood out straight away. Again, I remembered that article, this club’s quite special, I had different offers from a lot of different teams. Lewes were one of the bottom teams in the league at the time, but they just stood out in terms of their player care as well. So, they linked me to University of Chichester, they helped me sort that out, because they knew that I needed to be more than a footballer. In terms of that community and player stance they were far above. Yes, they probably weren’t, always paying the highest wages in the league or the most competitive in the league, but they’ve always just really cared about us as people. That’s why I ended up signing for Lewes.

I think my first day at the club, our welfare officer, Lynne Burrell stood up, she’s now the general manager, she shared her story about how she felt so welcome. She was a Manchester United fan but fell out of love with the men’s game. She just said how she came in one day to the club, and then ended up becoming a volunteer at the club and just felt so at home. There are so many special people at the club, it makes you feel like you’re at home.”


Role models

Following a successful season at Le Havre (HAC) where they finished second in the second highest women’s league in France. Rhian questioned whether she’d play football again…

Rhian: “I played every game in France, I was one of the key players. Then very soon after the season ended the coach called me into the office, he didn’t speak any English, but he basically said, “Goodbye”. It was very tough. From fulfilling a dream to play professionally (which I never really thought was possible), to having it taken away instantly as well as my home, my car, my whole lifestyle; this was an emotional time for me. I think I just thought, wow, my whole identity and my whole personality is football, this is not healthy. What am I supposed to do now and do I still want to play football? Luckily, I had a very good support system and took a couple of months off and realised I still love football, but I probably just needed to do something else as well.

That’s what got me back into education, and then the sports psychology around that. I probably fell into that because of the highs and lows of football. It feels weird that I’m saying I’ve been here for five seasons, because in some ways it feels like fifteen seasons and in some ways it feels like 5 minutes.  When we look back, and when we get to every summer, and I reflect on it, I’m very proud, but I think I’m more proud of the things that I’ve overcome in football, like being released and coming back into it, steering the team through a global pandemic, when managers have been sacked or when we’ve lost games, or a couple of years ago when I had double hip surgery, and again, really doubted my ability, whether I was good enough to play professionally and the resilience I have developed through these tough experiences.

 I’m going into schools, working with a great charity called Love Local Jobs Foundation, specifically with their Dare to Dream programme to inspire students to be their best selves. I’m realising that while I’m a professional footballer my platform is so much bigger.  Also, I’ve got a big responsibility while I’m captain of Lewes FC, whether I play no minutes for the rest of the season or play every game, whether we stay up or get relegated, I think I have a responsibility to use my platform to promote positive change.”

That role model piece is so important. We see this everywhere and even in business. It’s all very well saying, yes, women can make it right to the top, but if younger women don’t see any women at the top, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine out of nowhere that they could be CEO.


A quick note about Culture Consultancy…

You guessed it, we are a culture consultancy… We help clients create award-winning workplace cultures. If you need help with your culture challenge get in touch!

Back to the interview…


Overcoming obstacles to equality

Lewes FC was lucky to have the 2 male allies on the board and the community-led approach, but there were significant blockers to overcome to make ‘Equality FC’ a reality.

Karen: “Having been an architect of the Equality FC campaign, to get more ‘unwelcome women’ into our ground and becoming owners of the club thus creating a new market, I was then elected to the board in 2019. As a woman who, prior to Lewes’ equality campaigning, had not previously been into football on a male-dominated board, what I had to overcome more than anything, was imposter syndrome and I had to see that imposter syndrome as an advantage. I had to overcome that in many ways on the board, and then when I was being a radio pundit believe it or not without knowing the rules of football, and when I was talking about football to existing fans and owners: I just had to see that the things that I didn’t know about football made me a pair of fresh eyes that could think what can we do here that would make someone like me feel that I belonged.”


Photo: Lewes FC women's team. Credit: James Boyes


Rhian:For me, and I think probably for most players, the biggest obstacle is the sacrifices that we have to make. Being a professional footballer anyway, regardless, if you’re a male or a female is hard enough but as a woman it’s often impossible. I think it always seems very easy and maybe the best job in the world. I know how grateful we are just to train every day, I can’t believe that’s my job sometimes but it’s still a struggle. Fortunately, people like Karen and her husband Charlie have managed to help me continue being a professional footballer and helped a lot of the girls live in Lewes with discounted rent. The club has offered me a part-time job to give me flexible work hours and extra income alongside playing football. So many girls have had to quit playing football or drop down the pyramid and stop their dream just because the lifestyle is often still impossible. I guess the decision goes above us, we’ve talked about men in positions of power and decision making. But that’s where the money comes in as well. When we hosted the FA Cup Quarter Final last year against Manchester United, we earnt £51,000 for the club to get to the quarterfinals, but if we were the male team that got to the quarterfinals, it would be more like £250,000.

 We did a player led campaign to push for equal FA Cup prize money “#EqualFACup” which I was extremely proud to be a part of with some of my teammates. That did double the prize money, but again, it’s nowhere near what the men would get.

I’m currently fighting for PFA support. PFA stands for Professional Football Association and it’s the union for all current and former professional footballers. The PFA supports the top 4 leagues (92 teams) of men’s football but only the Women’s Super League (12 teams). The second division, The FA Women’s Championship is not supported. In my direct experience we are the players that need this support the most for help with mental health, injuries and rehabilitation costs, help with career transition, reduced pricing for coaching badges, other job opportunities and discounted football boots etc.

 The PFA don’t consider FA Women’s Championship players to be professional despite the commitment we give and the obstacles we already face. I believe it comes down to money, and those making decisions based on that. So again, we’ve made massive strides in terms of the growth of the women’s game but it’s still so far from equal, especially outside of Lewes.”


What can other clubs do to embrace equality?

Lewes FC is the only club in the world with equality between the men and the women, but you could argue it makes sense because the men’s team is in a lower league than the women. What can the bigger clubs do to move equality forward when the men’s teams are performing at the top?

Karen:There’s a lot that massive clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal etc, can do support their women’s teams that wouldn’t cost them a penny, they can have separate social media handles, give them prominence on the website, they can resource their women’s team properly, not in terms of pay maybe, but in terms of medical and all the things that they can easily just pass across the table from the men’s side. However, what we really are talking about here is intention, and how we value men’s and women’s football. Women’s football may not benefit from equality with men’s football, because there are things in men’s football and the trajectory it’s followed, which include toxic masculinity, corruption, and maybe too much concentration on the commercial side of things.

 There are things from the men’s game that the women’s game doesn’t want to emulate. So it may be that we drop some of the lust for resources or money in favour of keeping the inclusive crowds, and the kind of collective effervescence of the atmosphere at women’s matches that we love so much. The way that you can bring kids and dogs and not worry about them.  These are things that I honestly think the women’s game has a lot to teach the men’s game in many ways.”


From equality to equity

Rhian:The more I got involved with Lewes FC and the more I did talks like this with Karen and Maggie, the CEO, the more I realised that the greater we advocated for equality, the more we were kind of shooting ourselves in the foot and there might be an end date or an expiration on Lewes FC. We don’t want to be the only club in the world that has equal budgets. We want other clubs to value their women too and I think we keep the pressure on this point when we compete. We’ve beaten Liverpool, Leicester, we’ve gone toe to toe with Manchester United. The fact that we’ve been able to do that, then makes these clubs have to invest more in their women’s football, if they want to beat us, if they want to go to the Women’s Super League.

For the future, in my opinion I think Lewes FC Women should have a higher budget than Lewes FC Men, evolving from equality to equity. Over the last few years Lewes FC Women’s players are now expected to commit to professional hours of training in order to compete at the highest level, which is significantly more than our men. With these increased hours and commitment there should also come the financial support to make this lifestyle sustainable. We’re aware that the higher level that we play the more powerful our off the field messages become, so that’s our goal, to stay in The FA Championship.”  


Photo: Lewes FC vs Sheffield UTD. Credit: James Boyes


Karen:I totally agree with Rhian. If we introduce equity at Lewes FC, and the women’s team gets paid more than the men, or has more resources and gets paid more, the men will benefit from that hugely. They’ve already benefited from a £750,000 state-of-the-art pitch the summer before last because of the work done on the women’s side. The men are so happy about that. That’s just such a concrete example of “equality being a rising tide that lifts all our boats” or “equity being a rising tide that lifts all our boats”. There’s no doubt that the men’s team is going to benefit, think of all the practical infrastructure stuff we can build, the headlines, more owners, everyone benefits from equity. I just love that at Lewes FC we can prove these kinds of fairly basic concepts that also work in corporate and other areas, but if we can prove them with football that gets everyone interested and engaged.”


Show your support for equality in football and for Lewes FC

We really enjoyed this interview with Karen and Rhian, two inspiring women on a powerful mission. Look out for The Culture Consultancy team at a match soon.

If you’d like to support them and the club, head over to the Lewes FC website. – for just £50 you become a club owner! You can also join their Sisterships Network to support women and girls.

Lastly, if Lewes is a bit far from you, go out and find your local women’s club and give them your support!



Interview by Jo Geraghty & Braxton Baker-Bates.

Thanks to James Boyes for the photos.

Karen Dobres regularly gives talks at business and sports conferences on equality in football and its effect on driving gender equality in the wider world. Karen also created the club’s SisterShips network which is building a network of women’s organisations keen to support the club in solidarity with its campaigning equality stance.

Rhian Cleverly took on the captaincy at Lewes in the 2020/21 season and cleaned up all the awards: Coaches’ Player of the Season, Supporters’ Player of the Season and Players’ Player of the Season. That season also was the highest the club have ever finished since it was established in 2002, finishing 5th in the Women’s Championship. The end of the 22/23 season Rhian was also inducted into the Lewes FC Hall of Fame.