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Lewes FC: Celebrating ten years of community ownership

Earlier this month, Lewes FC reached the incredible milestone of 10 years’ in community-ownership. To mark the occasion, SD Europe spoke to the football club’s Chair Stuart Fuller and the FSA’s community-owned clubs network manager Richard Irving to dig deeper into this remarkable achievement – an interview reproduced with the permission of SD Europe below…

Stuart Fuller has been involved with Lewes FC since it’s transformation, whilst Richard Irving, the Football Supporters’ Association’s Community-Owned Clubs Network Manager is an ardent Lewes supporter.

Back in the late 2000s Lewes FC were in significant trouble.

The club had been spending unsustainably hoping for future success to recoup money lost. Eventually, the owner of the club ran out of money and it looked like the end of the road. Fortunately, the supporters banded together and saved the club by transforming it into a 100% community-owned football club based on a one share, one vote principle – run by and owned by the community. Officially, the club’s name is ‘Lewes CFC’, with the first ‘C’ standing for community.

Since finding its feet in the community-ownership model, the football club has gained international recognition for its Equality FC campaign, in which it provides its men’s and women’s teams with equal resources, facilities and media attention. The club’s men’s team competes sustainably in the seventh tier of English football, whilst its women’s team competes in the the FA Women’s Championship, the second tier of women’s football in England against the likes of Leicester City and Sheffield United.

Below, Stuart and Richard answer our questions to offer an insight into Lewes FC’s journey over the last 10 years.

What do you think has been the most important lesson for the football club along the way?

Stuart Fuller: “That you need to keep on banging the same drum, and repeating the same message, time and time again until people listen. And people will listen and whether that is players, managers, fans, the media, the FA, it doesn’t matter. You can’t just go out with one message once and assume that everyone is going to get it and be converted. You have to consistently drive home messages, that’s my key thing.”

Richard Irving: “That goes across the whole movement actually as well. For us as an organisation championing community-ownership we have to do the same thing and use our clubs to keep getting that message across. It was very interesting this week that Rick Parry from the EFL mentioned community-ownership as a way forward in an interview with the BBC so that message that Stuart talks about, that constant drilling home of the message is absolutely key, it is starting to work, particularly in times like these. Hopefully, more and more people will see it. As Stuart says, the message has got home to a lot of people and that starts with players and management and works all the way through to the fans and into national bodies as well.”

What has been the biggest non-sporting success to come out of 10 years of fan ownership?

Stuart Fuller: “I think it’s our stance on equality. Actually going out there and saying ‘we will have the same budgets available for our men’s and women’s teams”, I am genuinely shocked that we haven’t seen more teams in the UK do that. There are significant numbers of clubs where the men’s team play at a higher level than the women’s team and they could have done that. I’m talking relatively local to Lewes here as well. It’s what has really put Lewes on the map. Before that, we were seen as a little bit quirky, a little bit different, but moving into the equality situation has seen us be recognised as a football club which is trying to change the system from within.

“Again, banging on the same drum. Our message is clear and it has not changed. I get the fact Man City are never going to put the same amount of money into their playing budgets, I 100% understand that and the reasons why. But for the clubs like Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, why can’t they share the same facilities? I have never understood that, you are basically saying to Man City Women who play in the smaller stadium aside the Etihad Stadium “that’s where your place is.”

“To us, our equality stand was about equal budgets, but equality is also about equal resources, it’s about equal media attention. One of the really interesting things I saw last year was I had to go to Bangkok for business, and I was in a taxi outside the airport and on a billboard there was a Liverpool FC advert Van Dijk, one of the women’s team players and one of their promising younger players, and I thought, “wow that’s impressive”, they are advertising, and they are advertising equal. But then you see the women’s team does not play in Liverpool, the club doesn’t give them any money, and consequently they have been relegated. So it’s highly embarrassing that they have the best Liverpool men’s team in history, and their women’s team had possibly their worst ever season and will be playing, not to demean ourselves, Lewes next year. I get why some clubs say they can’t do it, but there’s a host of clubs who could do it tomorrow and it would not cost them a penny.”

Richard Irving: “I agree on that, I think the worldwide attention that the club has had as a result of the equality project has been unprecedented for a relatively small club, and like Stuart I am surprised there hasn’t been more interest in something similar. But there’s progress, it’s slow, but hopefully we can be at the vanguard of it. We’ll see. I think it’s the same Europe wide, Real Madrid have just announced a women’s team which is effectively a takeover of another, but for a club like Borussia Dortmund to not have a women’s team is pretty shocking in this day and age, particularly in Germany which I like to think is a pretty enlightened and forward thinking football market.”

Why do you think fan ownership has been a success at Lewes FC?

Stuart Fuller: “I think there are four answers to this. You cannot understand Lewes until you have lived in Lewes or been to Lewes a number of times. It is unlike any place I have visited in the UK. You just have to look at things like it’s yearly bonfire celebrations, the town has its own currency, the local activism, it is unique. Therefore if you have got something that belongs to the town, then the town attaches itself to it.

“The second thing is that the football club has a really unique story as for 110 years of its life it basically did nothing, there was nothing that you could say made Lewes stand out. And then it went through this very well trodden path of boom and bust, very quick boom, very quick and spectacular bust. And from the ashes, you have the community-owned club… the community-ownership model gave the opportunity for a breath of fresh air.

“The third thing is that Lewes FC’s community ownership rise 10 years ago also coincided with Brighton & Hove Albion’s demise. 15 or 20 years ago Brighton were playing out the city, and they only had 3-4,000 people watching them. So you had people in Brighton who wanted their football, so they started following Lewes, which was one of the reasons we saw the success, part of it was about timing. And one of the issues we face now is Brighton are in the Premier League in a new 30,000 capacity stadium back in the city.

“I think the fourth thing is that we have tried to make the club different, challenge the norms, it’s not just about the campaigns off the pitch, it’s what we try and do on the pitch, the way we run things and we are blessed with an amazing location. Part of the dilemma is that for the owners of the club in future may have to compromise between losing that uniqueness for ambition. If we were to pump £1 million a year into the playing budget, that would probably get us to the top of the National League. All of sudden, we would have to segregate crowds, we wouldn’t be able to serve alcohol in the stands, we would have to upgrade a lot of the facilities. In that instance, you are going to lose huge amounts of what is special about the club.”

Richard Irving: “What Stuart said about sustainability, that’s key as far as the community ownership model is concerned. It’s all about sustainability, it’s made so many clubs more stable since the model has come into place. In some cases it ends up being its own worst enemy as you have seen with Portsmouth and Brentford, where they were functioning properly and became a saleable commodity which is the nature of the football business. So few community owned clubs have gone out of business by comparison to the privately owned clubs, so sustainability is everything.”

Why do you think Lewes FC and its fan-ownership model proved to be a fertile ground for women’s football and the Equality FC campaign?

Stuart Fuller: “Again, I think it’s an element that we are punching way above our weight. That’s for sure. The Lewes women’s team have been around for a while and have always been very successful and one of the things that happened was up until five or six years ago there were no opportunities for a club like Lewes to break into the higher structures of women’s football, it was a closed shop. So we campaigned and got a play-off introduced which allowed clubs to progress, and then there was that we became the beneficiaries of fortune, because the FA decided they wanted more teams and and more clubs to apply and show that they can sustain and grow women’s football so that was almost chance that we found women’s football. The game is in a much better place now than it was 5 years ago. We saw some terrible facilities and grounds that women’s teams were being made to play and train in at the higher levels, and we realised that we could offer better facilities and do better so we applied to enter our team.

“Again, it comes back to community-ownership, putting a team up and getting an FA license really helped us to engage with the community. We were going into schools and talking to kids about the fact that just down the road the Lewes FC Women team are going to be playing the likes of Manchester Untied, Tottenham Hotspur and Brighton, and we got a whole new set of fans. By making it really fan centric and fan friendly, you bring fans in.”

Richard Irving: “It’s been a major success, the amount of people going to games is refreshing… The community ownership model in general lends itself to supporting a number of teams, it’s in the name itself to have a community of teams, and a lot of the clubs within the FSA’s community-ownership network have successful women’s teams. Hopefully, again we will be leaders in that too.”

For Richard: The club prominently champions positive values and contributes within its community, how do you think this has impacted the fan-owned landscape?

Richard Irving: “It’s difficult to judge that. I don’t have any evidence to suggest that it’s been a particular driver of the movement. Community-ownership is often about where the football club is at a certain time, if it’s struggling financially or is about to go out of business. We would like to see more clubs move in smoothly without there being a crisis to create it. I think the model is driven by particular circumstances rather than seeing a club doing it and wanting to do it, although two of our recent clubs which are small clubs are driven by the fact they have a good base to build off of and are driven by doing the right thing in changing.

“So what Lewes has done is help give the movement more profile, because everything that has gone alongside the Equality FC campaign mentions the fact that the football club is community-owned. As Stuart says, it’s about banging on about the same message, it’s about the equality, the sustainability, it’s everything that community ownership can bring. Things are changing, more people are interested in the model and hopefully you will see more clubs taking this route over the coming months.”

After 10 years of fan ownership, what’s the vision for the next 10 years?

Stuart Fuller: “If you look on the field, I don’t think there is a common objective or target, it would depend on who you ask. The thing we want to do which is really important is we want to be playing winning quality football. That’s one of the reasons why earlier this year we brought in Claire Rafferty, with her experience playing internationally, and with a number of Super League clubs, so we are working on that. On the men’s side we should be challenging at the top of step 2 (tier 6 of the English football system), as I say, if you reach step 1, you have to weigh up the pros and cons, what you lose, so we have to think about that really carefully. Some directors think we could be a Football League side, but that would require enormous investment into the facilities, and potentially we would lose everything that our ground has.

“On the women’s side, definitely playing in the Super League, if you talk to some of our directors, one in particular thinks we should be playing in the Champions League. Personally, I think there will be a European women’s super league, I think it’s prime to happen, which would give us the opportunity to play in the top tier of English women’s football. I’d also like to see us upgrade the facilities at our stadium, to think we are moving the 21st century rather than the 19th century, which some of our facilities date back to. In terms of ownership, our aim has always been to have 5,000 owners by 2023, so in 10 years, we want 10,000. We want to remain financially stable, have the community at the heart and be the heart of the community.”

Lewes FC’s story has inspired clubs far and wide, what would be your message to football clubs considering or in a fan-ownership or member-run model in the UK and across Europe?

Stuart Fuller: “You need to ensure you are providing value. One of the maxims I always work to is ‘nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing’, and to me, you have to be providing value. You can’t just be a community-owned football club and expect people to give you money. What’s the value? Why would someone part with £10, £20, £50 or £100? You have to have your message, and you have to follow through on your message. If your message is ‘we want to create a real community asset and we want the local community to be a part of it’, and then you don’t open your club house or allow people to book your facilities, or you don’t support local things like foodbanks, it’s not going to work. Community-ownership needs to be driven with the community in mind. You almost have to disassociate what you are doing on the pitch with off the pitch. There has to be an expectation, and this is something we learnt, you have to be prepared to fall to a position where you can rebuild. We came into community-ownership when we were in step 2, and we couldn’t compete so we dropped to step 3, we still couldn’t compete so we dropped to step 4. We spent two seasons at step 4, and we are now back at step 3, and now this year we are looking at potentially pushing on again.”

Richard Irving: “I think that’s it when looking at the model, it can have some difficulties, but once you get the stability, and you manage the expectations of the fans that there will be hard times as well as good, if you have got that solidity that the community-ownership model brings, then it shouldn’t take long to get back to where you want to be, but keeping everybody onboard is absolutely the key to it and managing those expectations.”

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