Ahead of Lewes FC’s new ownership campaign, GiveMeSport caught up with one of the club’s most prominent board members, Charlie Dobres, to chat about what makes Lewes so special.
The game of football strikes a strange juxtaposition when it comes to its own image. It’s universally played, supported, and adored. It’s also widely condemned on account of greed, corruption, and manipulation.
We live in an era where many football clubs, once pillars of their local community, have been commandeered by venture capitalists and Gulf states, with questionable morals to say the least.
But what if there was another way? What if the power balance was tipped back in the favour of fans? What if board-level decisions were a democratic process and large portions of profit was reinvested into the club and its community?
That’s where Lewes FC comes in. Hailing from a modest town in East Sussex, the club set out on a mission a little over 10 years ago in the hope of creating a better future within football.
“I first got involved in Lewes Football Club when me and my then-young family moved down here in 2007,” club board member Charlie Dobres tells me. “I got introduced to a guy who was concerned about the future of the club called Patrick Marber. He’s a playwright who co-wrote Alan Partridge and stuff like that.
“So we got together and thought, ‘okay, let’s see what we can do’. At that point, Lewes was in serious financial trouble because of the global meltdown, the 2007/08 financial crisis — which seems pretty minor these days, compared to the pandemic, but at the time was really quite big.
“It had a lot of casualties, and one of them was football clubs, particularly where the owners were people whose businesses had been hit. One of Lewes’ co-owners was in the building industry, and it hit him pretty badly.
“A group of five or six of us then decided to get involved. We had loads of negotiation with them, and eventually decided to take over the club (for a pound) and turn it into a mutual, rather than private, enterprise.
“That was in 2009, and I’ve been involved ever since. After starting off with a handful of owners who put working capital in, Lewes now has 1,900 owners from numerous countries all around the world.”
Charlie’s background is in advertising and marketing. Having made his money in the 2000s after the internet boom, he opted to semi-retire but now channels his experience into helping Lewes FC grow.
It was certainly a strong message. To this day they remain the only club in the world to pay both their men’s and women’s teams equally. Gender equality is at the heart of the club, and Charlie has utilised his marketing background to help spread their story.
“I would say that’s where my skills in brand building and advertising and marketing have been really useful. Sometimes those things can be viewed as very anti-football, anti-community. They’re not when combined with common sense and humanity, though.
“You have to really try and dissect what’s important about your football club, so that if I explain it to someone else, they understand the club and the town. That’s vital. It’s got to matter to people, particularly locally, but ideally beyond that.”
At its core, the purpose of a football club is to serve its community and help amplify its message. Few do that better than Lewes. Mainly down to the fact everything is backed up by action. There are no hollow PR gestures, no shallow statements. Everything comes from a place of authenticity.
“Authenticity is something you feel, not something you claim. So as you grow that should naturally come across. That’s not always the case in modern football in the Premier League and other top leagues.
“A lot of fans now feel it’s a bit phoney, it’s not very real. Not welcoming. The only message they see is: ‘how do we make a shit tonne more money?’ Or, ‘how do we whitewash the reputation of this state?’”
Indeed, the town of Lewes and its football club are inextricably intertwined. One of many examples is how they use their pitches and coaches to run sessions known as Football Therapy, aimed at improving the mental health of local people.
“Alongside the exercise, and physical and mental benefits, the coach is assisted by someone professionally trained in mental health,” Charlie adds. “So people can chat to them afterwards if they want to open up about anything from anxiety or depression, or just something they’re struggling with. It’s a very supportive environment.”
There’s even a vegetable garden in the corner of the Dripping Pan — the club’s home ground — set up by one of their newest men’s players, Bradley Pritchard. “He really wanted to start a community garden, so we facilitated it and now there’s literally one in the corner of the ground that grows produce we’ll not only use in the club kitchen, but also use to support local food banks.”
Thanks to Charlie and other board members — including his wife, Karen, and the club’s CEO, Maggie Murphy — Lewes’ message now resonates far and wide, and has piqued the interest of a number of prominent sportswomen.
The likes of Judy Murray, Sue Anstiss and Dr. Eva Carneiro now count themselves as proud owners of the football club, making up three of the 1,900-strong owners worldwide. And while their support is fantastic and well-appreciated, Charlie is keen to stress that everyone is equal when it comes to club affairs.
“It’s really really helpful to have people who have their own platform. Once you have that, people tend to notice you more. So, for example, when Judy Murray became an owner, a bunch more people saw it and also became owners. These people not only have reach but are also well-respected. When they say something, people listen, and that’s great.
“But essentially, this is a movement made up of ordinary, everyday people. It doesn’t matter if you’re famous. You’re still ordinary. This is a movement for people who’ve basically had enough of the way society is governed and want to help instigate change.
“We think this is a club and this is a campaign that will appeal to people, even if they don’t like football. It might help if they do like football, but even if they don’t, it’s just for people who have a strong sense that things should be better than this.
“That there should be gender equality, that betting advertising shouldn’t be put in front of children — however allegedly inadvertent it is — that it shouldn’t be the case that the biggest cup competition in the world, the FA Cup, is one where women are paid less than 2% of the total prize money compared to the men.
“We’re really after people to become owners who’ve had enough of societal injustices. Our entire campaign is built around a sense of what I would call quiet and resolute anger: that change needs to happen faster.”
The ultimate aim for Lewes now is to continue to grow and to have their voice heard by the game’s biggest decision-makers — namely the FA and Premier League in England.
“We want to grow and be as big as possible for two reasons. One, we want to have a really big platform, nationally and internationally, because we have things we want to say that we think aren’t being said within football.
“We want a big platform so that when we do say stuff, people can’t just turn around and go, ‘that’s just Lewes saying it’, they’ll have to go, ‘well that’s interesting because their women’s team is in the Super League and their men’s teams in the Football League, so we should listen to them’.
“Number two is about having as many owners as possible, because it will generate revenue for us. We don’t have a state fund behind us, we don’t have rich magnates behind us — and let’s be clear, not all people with wealth are bad — but there are too many examples in football of bad money, with bad intent, which is not for the good of teams or fans.
“For us, we want to have as many owners as possible because we get to multiply it by what is now £50 a year for a single share on a subscription basis. That’s our main and ongoing revenue source, and although we’re technically not-for-profit, we want to make profit, but in an ethical way. We then use our profits for the betterment of our community and for football.
“It all sounds incredibly noble, and you have to be very careful at this point. People might say, ‘shut the f*ck up, just get on with playing football’ and they might have a point, but we want to generate revenue to help ours and others communities.”
The next aim in Lewes FC’s sights is to become the largest fan-owned club in the UK. For that, they approximately need another 2,000 subscriptions, something Charlie is optimistic about off the back of this new ownership drive.
“This is our first ever properly coordinated campaign to encourage people to become owners of Lewes FC. The actual process itself is really simple. You can just go to our website and, within one minute, become an owner.
“We’re launching this campaign in the hope it will drive ownership numbers in the next few months before and post-Christmas to the tune of an additional 2,000. It’s why we are also so very keen and happy to be partnering with GiveMeSport, because what we’ve found is that when we tell our story, we pick up lots of new ownerships from people.
“There are numerous examples of things we do within our community, but all of them emanate because our entire reason for being is that we’re constantly looking for ways to use the power of football as a tool for social good.”
It’s a great message, and at its root, one all football clubs should be about.
Lewes FC is aiming to become the most fan-owned football club in the world. To find out more about becoming an owner, visit https://lewesfc.com/become-an-owner/