Lewes FC CEO Maggie Murphy Exclusive: "We're a small club with a big voice"

Lewes FC CEO Maggie Murphy on gender equality in football

Although Maggie Murphy played football from a young age, she had always viewed the sport as “very much something I did at the weekend”. Instead, the now-CEO of Lewes FC embarked on a career in anti-corruption, governance and human rights.

“But I started to get more and more frustrated,” she reminisced. “The older I got, the more I reflected, looked back at my football, and wondered why there were so many constant challenges.

“I realised that in a way that it was a good governance issue. And at the highest points, it’s a corruption issue as well, especially when the FIFA corruption scandal hit in 2015. I realised that the people that are governing football didn’t really care about me, didn’t care if I played and didn’t care, really, if I went to games – if I gave them money, they’d be happy. But apart from that, they didn’t really care about me.

“So, I became a lot more active and engaged and interested in the issues. And that’s when I teamed up with a bunch of women from all around the world, and we decided to do something momentous that no one else had done before. And that was to set a Guinness World Record for the highest altitude football match ever played.”

Lewes FC are the only football club in the world to pay their male and female players the same

As a result, 30 women from 20 different countries trekked up Mount Kilimanjaro to play a 90 minute football match.The group came to be known as Equal Playing Field, a collective of women around the world promoting opportunity, equality and respect for women and girls in football, of which Murphy is still involved with today. 

Murphy described the game as being of “terrible quality” due to the high altitude, but the standard of the match wasn’t important.

“It was kind of taking a stand and trying to do something – it was a kind of physical manifestation of some of the frustrations that we’ve been feeling,” Murphy said.

Shortly after Murphy returned from her trip up Mount Kilimanjaro, Lewes FC announced it was to become the first football club in the world to pay its female players the same as its male players. This decision was made in 2017 as part of the club’s ‘Equality FC’ campaign.

For me, that really was like, finally a club that’s trying to do the right thing, not just in words, but in actions.

“And my path kept crossing with Lewes a little bit, while I was still working with Equal Playing Field, the group that set the Guinness World Record.

“Then they approached me in early 2019. And again, at the time when they said, ‘do you want to come on board as a general manager?’ I was like, ‘oh, no no, football is something I do on the side. It’s not a career.’

“But at the time I was probably pretty angry and thought, well, let’s go see if I can do something. Let me put my money where my mouth is, and see if I can actually take Lewes to the next level, which is what I’m trying to do.”

Murphy is now chief executive of Lewes FC, a role which encompasses both the men’s team in the Isthmian League Premier Division and the women’s side in the Women’s Championship. The club really is like no other, and not just because of its stance on gender equality in football.

Maggie Murphy is CEO of Lewes FC

“The club differs because we’re really guided in everything we do by our principles and our values,” Murphy explained. “So winning on the pitch is a big part of what we do. But we won’t violate our values in order to get there.

“We’re maybe a little bit less well-known for some of the other stances that we’ve taken, for example on gambling adverts. We have a really strong anti-gambling stance. We believe that the gambling industry has been incredibly harmful to younger people, who have been subjected to a torrent of gambling advertisements.

“We need to take a stand on that, and we’re a small club but with a big voice. So, we will go into battle on some of those big issues. So we are a club that is brave, ambitious, very community orientated – being 100 percent fan owned – and also dedicated to making football better.”

Despite a “small amount of criticism that has been very vocal”, ‘Equality FC’ has proved to be undeniably successful. The men’s team earned promotion to the Premier Division in the first year, while the attendance for the women’s side has quadrupled.

“We are not a gimmicky club, I think people understand that we’re not a gimmick now,” Murphy said. “We just had our best ever season on the women’s side. So we play better football than our rivals as well. It’s not just that we want to treat everyone fairly and equally, we’re also trying to prove that that creates great football as well.”

Maggie Murphy is CEO of Lewes FC

Given the success of ‘Equality FC’, does Murphy think other football clubs will soon follow suit and give their male and female players the same resources?

“Lots of other clubs are investing a lot more now than they were a few years ago,” she answered. “A lot of clubs would like to do this in an incremental way, and would like to softly softly improve things for their women’s teams.

“But there’s still so far to go. Of course, I understand the big clubs not wanting to pay the players the same, but I don’t agree with that. I think they should. But, lots of clubs are not very willing to put a date on it. Okay fine, not equal pay now, what about in 10 years? In 2050? Okay, if we go with 2050 then we can work back.

“But people are very unwilling to actually plan and so they’ll just do the incremental, here’s a 5 percent increase here, here’s a couple of percent increase. I’m a bit bored, I’m a bit tired of the incremental progress, because I think that women deserve a lot more.

I think we should be over-investing in women’s sport and women’s football, because we’ve starved it for so long.

Money is starting to pour into women’s football, particularly from broadcasters such as Sky Sports. The pay-TV network and the BBC are part of a multi-million-pound broadcast deal for the upcoming Women’s Super League season.

Teams in the top flight will receive 75 percent of revenue from the deal, while the remaining 25 percent is set to go to the second-tier Women’s Championship, where Lewes play.

Murphy described the broadcast deal, touted to increase the accessibility and availability of women’s football, as “really significant”. But she warned Lewes “stands to lose a lot” from the deal.

“A lot of the other big clubs that are in our division, who we have gone head to head with over the last few years, will now be incentivised to invest a lot more, a lot quicker. In a way that we can’t do because we’ve been building something sustainable.”

Lewes FC play at the Dripping Pan

For Murphy, this must be one of the main areas of focus as women’s football grows.

“I think in the future, there’s always going to be pressure on the FA and whoever ends up owning the leagues, to get quick results and a return on investment,” she said. “But we’ve been starved of investment so why are we rushing? Why are we hurrying now? We need to do this properly and grow it.

“On a smaller level, things like the medical support, things like having the visibility, the marketing, the reach to generate funds in a sustainable way, to build up the attendances, to build up crowds, and then invest that back into the professionalism of your club, I think that’s really important.”

If Murphy took up a role with Lewes FC to put her money where her mouth is, then she is certainly succeeding. The club is now truly at the forefront of the push for gender equality in football.

GiveMeSport Women will be covering these efforts and following Lewes Women as they compete in the upcoming season of the Championship.

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