Lewes Women: How beach huts, prosecco and equal pay helped 'quadruple' crowds

By Tom GarryBBC Sport
Lewes' beach huts
Ever wanted to watch a match from a beach hut? At Lewes you can
Women's FA Cup fifth round: Arsenal v Lewes
Date: Sunday, 16 February Kick-off: 13:00 GMT Venue: Meadow Park Coverage: Live on the BBC Red Button, iPlayer and on the BBC Sport website and app.

Looking out from the window of the beach hut on a Sunday afternoon, there's a band playing, drummers beating and prosecco being served on tap.

Yet there is no sea or sand - this is in fact a typical match at the Dripping Pan, the home of Women's Championship outfit Lewes. If that sounds out of the ordinary, this not a run-of-the-mill football team.

After allocating the same budgets to their men's and women's squads in 2017 - believed to be a world first - the Sussex outfit have risen to the second tier of the women's pyramid.

On Sunday they travel to record 14-time winners Arsenal in the fifth round of the Women's FA Cup and, during the warm-up, will aim to highlight the disparity in prize money between the men's and women's cups with specially-made t-shirts.

"We want to make a difference in football," Lewes director Charlie Dobres told BBC Sport. "We have a saying: Play good football and use football to do good.

"It's not just some made-up moral stance. We want to demonstrate that, in the wider world too, when you introduce a gender-equality policy, everyone benefits, not just women."

The club have seen wide-ranging benefits on and off the field since introducing equal pay, from growing crowds to attracting new signings with their ethos.

"A lot of people think that what we're doing at Lewes with this equality project is just a little bit of a gimmick," general manager Maggie Murphy added.

"But we've seen crowds quadruple since we took the decision to introduce parity in the marketing budgets, and that's despite the fact that we've increased ticket prices by 160%.

"From our perspective, this is about value. We value the product and we're proud of it."

The club - which is community-owned - have also changed their matchday offerings after liaising with fans, including an unusual VIP experience of watching games from a beach hut.

Archive: The football club with no gender pay gap

"We're able to be a little bit more flexible here at Lewes, to be creative and inventive," Murphy continued. "We sell really good local beer, we put prosecco on tap and we have local pies.

"We saw a huge upturn in the people that knew about us and came along.

"We've got more than 100 volunteers that help out across the club. That's linked to how proud the community is of Lewes FC and what it's doing."

However, the reaction to Lewes' equal-pay stance from the public has not been entirely positive.

"In the past two-and-a-half years, we've seen a lot of pushback, particularly in areas like social media - you'd be amazed how many guys want to spend time writing to tell you they're not interested in women's football," Dobres said.

"Our aspirations are like anybody else's. We want to get in to the Women's Super League and compete. At the same time, equally, our job is to get the men's team up the leagues.

"If we build the revenues we'll give it out to both teams and community projects."

The club, who are eighth in the second tier, travel to WSL champions Arsenal on Sunday, in a match being broadcast live on the BBC.

After a good start in August, the Sussex side are without a league win since September after a run of defeats and postponements, but were boosted by January's dramatic fourth-round cup win over lower-league Billericay on penalties.

"The girls have stuck together," forward Ella Powell said. "We've had some bad luck but the home support helps us get through games.

"You really feel the sense of community on a game day. It's not been something I've been used to before."

Katie Rood
Lewes' Katie Rood has also previously played for Bristol City

Wales' Rhian Cleverly added: "The girls that have been attracted here from further afield, it's all because of the club's values.

"They respect me as a person as well as a player. Lewes really stood out for me because of that equality side.

"They want you to be happy off the pitch and with their values, it's nice to know you have their backing behind you."

New Zealand international and former Juventus star Katie Rood added: "I've played at some big clubs around the world, but coming here you really start to understand the value of a club investing in you as a person.

"The equality message is getting out there, not just in football, and I feel like it's changing things, which is a cool thing to be a part of."

The club have been vocal on issues in the sport, calling on the Football Association to "redress the enormous gap" in the men's and women's FA Cup prize funds before January's fourth round.

But will other clubs soon follow their model of equality, or will they remain unique for years to come?

"One of the first accusations we get thrown at us is 'you can do it because you're not a Premier League club'," Murphy said. "In the United Kingdom we get all a little bit wrapped up about the Premier League.

"There are a lot more clubs the same size as Lewes FC than there are Premier League teams, so actually pay parity is doable on a huge scale.

"What if hundreds or thousands of clubs across the UK took the decision Lewes did? Suddenly we'd see a radical change.

"Maybe it's about filtering up to the Premier League as opposed to waiting for the Premier League to trickle down."

Lewes are one of six sides from outside the WSL to have reached the last-16 stage of the cup.

Fourth-tier Ipswich - the lowest-ranked side remaining in the competition - are away to holders Manchester City, while Chelsea's tie against Liverpool has been moved to Monday because of the inbound Storm Dennis.

Winning sides will receive £3,000 in prize money, while men's fifth-round winners in March will each collect £360,000.