‘This Is A Cycle And We Have The Opportunity To Break It’ Exclusive Interview With Lewes GM Maggie Murphy

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Arsenal face Lewes Women on Sunday in their rearranged 5th Round FA Women’s Cup tie at Meadow Park. Storm Dennis saw the original tie postponed last weekend. Tim Stillman caught up with Lewes General Manager Maggie Murphy to talk about how Arsenal came to the decision and the dialogue the two clubs had, the impact of the postponement on Lewes and how the FA could make a transformational change for women’s football by equalising the prize money.

Postponements are a thorny issue for women’s football since the move back to a winter schedule in 2017. So much so, that the FA are currently exploring extending the Championship season due to the volume of fixture rearrangements. Lewes General Manager Maggie Murphy explains that postponements are “complicated” and require input from various sources.

“The decision rests with the home club in terms of what they are in charge of,” she tells me. “The home club can advise the game should be called of in the interests of crowd safety, so with the storms there have been concerns about flying materials or banners, which creates a crowd safety issue. There is also a slightly more blurred line around the safety and convenience of travelling fans and that decision is taken by the referee.”

The surface wasn’t really a concern last weekend, but that is often a determining factor in postponements, clubs can advise that their pitch looks potentially unplayable and the referee makes a decision upon inspection- in consultation with the FA who are usually very keen for games to go ahead to offset potential congestion. “It’s tricky to lay blame at one individual’s door,” Maggie points out. “There are many different elements responsible for different parts of the decision-making process.”

Travelling fans were a key driver for the decision to call last week’s tie off. For Lewes, a tie away to the champions of England is a big draw and they had hired supporters’ coaches to cater for the extra demand. Maggie explains that she had early contact with Arsenal with travel in mind given the forecast for stormy conditions, “I first spoke to Arsenal on the Friday before the game and that discussion was abut contingencies,” Maggie explains.

“One of the discussions we had was about what we would do if the game needed to be rescheduled, those conversations continued throughout Saturday and I also spoke with the referee. But we couldn’t make the decision until Sunday morning because the FA wanted to give the game every chance to go ahead.” Maggie was also in constant touch with the coach company hired to take travelling Lewes fans to Hertfordshire.

“In Lewes there is no coach company, so the company we use is based in Worthing. That means they need to drive for about an hour before they get to us. I had to speak to them throughout Saturday evening and Sunday morning until I had clarity on the match decision. We have a good relationship with the company and they agreed not to charge us so long as the coach didn’t leave the depot and so long as we rebooked them for this weekend. Some clubs don’t get their money back even with a few days’ notice.”

Lewes’ relationship with the coach company prevented them from losing too much on travel, but as Maggie explains, there are still plenty of other costs to recover. Lewes were due to play away at Sheffield United in the Championship this weekend and with travel and accommodation booked for the players, Murphy has had to embark on another cost-salvaging process.

“My go-to phrase for this conversation is ‘it’s complicated,” she laughs. “The coaches to Arsenal cost us around £1,200 and we’ve rescued that, but of course, some supporters are not available for the rearranged game, so we lose some money there. We already had coaches and a hotel booked for the players for Sheffield and every away game we play where that is necessary costs us about £2,000.

“We lost that £2,000 earlier in the season when we had a game postponed at Blackburn on the morning of the game and we had already travelled. That game will be rearranged and we’ll have to pay that cost again. Fortunately, we have been able to salvage the cost for Sheffield, we’ve been able to cancel the hotel and coaches for free so long as we use those companies for the rescheduled game.”

The FA are currently in discussion with clubs about extending the Championship season due to the level of postponements, which will also incur cost for clubs. Maggie expects the club to roughly break even on their FA Cup tie with Arsenal. “There are a couple of things the FA have done to make it slightly less of a burden for women’s clubs.

“We will get some of our travel costs reimbursed to us. We get around £750 if we lose the game,” she reveals, before interrupting her thought, “But we will win! We run on an extremely tight budget so that is very helpful to us. £750 is the cost of a couple of scans if one of our players picks up an injury on Sunday. It’s tight, financially, for us to play in this competition.”

Lewes have been very vocal about increasing the prize money for the Women’s FA Cup- Lewes themselves pay their men’s and women’s teams equally. In the previous round, the Lewes players warmed up in tee-shirts setting out the difference in prize money between the men’s and women’s competitions. Lewes will arrive at the stadium wearing the shirts again on Sunday. For Maggie, Lewes and many others, the case for equalising the prize money makes itself.

“The FA, as the body responsible for promoting the game across the country, could make a radical change for women’s football, not just in this country but globally, by splitting the prize money equally between the men and the women. At the moment, the prize money for the women’s competition is about 1% of the men’s, but when you dig into the figures, there are other things that are startling.”

Lewes have this week published a study setting out some of those figures. “Let’s take the women’s semi-final,” Maggie outlines, “The women will win £5,000 and the men will win £1.8m. That is 0.28% of the men’s prize money. When you move from the women’s semi-final to the final, the prize money increases 400%, which shows that the elite female footballers are more valued, but that’s still only 0.69% of what the men win for competing in the final.”

Having made the case for equalising pay, Murphy is well-versed in the counter arguments around value and revenue- but it’s an argument that misses the point in her view. “We’re often served the revenue argument, that women’s football doesn’t earn money therefore it doesn’t deserve to make money. But this is a cycle and we have the opportunity to break it.

“If we earn more money, we can make more money and generate larger crowds, but it’s difficult to do that if you don’t have the initial investment. It’s the worst business strategy in the world to require a product to be successful before you invest in it. Facebook, Google, Diet Coke, none of these products were successful without initial investment and for those products to reach their potential.”

While elite men’s clubs would barely notice if the FA Cup prize money was equalised, there is an argument that those lower in the food chain in men’s football would lose out. Again, this is not an argument that holds water with Maggie, “Around 80% of the money for the men’s tournament goes into the rounds where the Premier League clubs join, it’s not as grassroots friendly as people make out.”

In 2018, the FA doubled the prize money for the men’s FA Cup, but left the women’s FA Cup prize money the same. “In 2018 there was money available, not 1977, 2018, there was money available for this and we would see a radically different women’s game had the decision been taken then.” Murphy is also keen to point out that equalising prize money would be just as beneficial for a club like Arsenal as it would clubs like Lewes and those lower down.

“When we get knocked out of the cup, whenever that happens and hopefully it won’t, we want whoever wins to get more money than they will get. The winner gets £3,000 on Sunday and of course that money means more to Lewes than it does to Arsenal; but imagine if they got the £180k the men get for winning this game- that would be a lot of money for Arsenal Women. Imagine if Arsenal got £1.8m for winning the competition.

“The high-end clubs operate on somewhere between £2-5m per annum, imagine if they could win £1.8m for winning the cup, that would be radical. Manchester City men got £3.6m for winning last year, taking £1.8m off them and giving it to the winning women’s team [who happened to be City Women last year] is very little money for the men’s side of the club and a radical transformation for the women’s side.”

There is also a tier of women’s teams for whom equal prize money would be revolutionary, as Murphy points out, “Look at clubs like London Bees [affiliated to Barnet] or Charlton who are in the Championship in women’s football. If equal prize money were available to women’s teams those clubs would invest dramatically because their women’s teams are, on balance, likely to go further in the competition than their men.

“Suddenly those teams might not be training until 10pm on weekday evenings and might be using the men’s training grounds. Those clubs then have more of an incentive to invest in health and medical staff for the women’s team.” Maggie summarises her argument in her final salvo. “At the moment there is so little incentive for a men’s side to invest and the FA could dramatically change that overnight.”

Arsenal play Lewes at Meadow Park at 1pm on Sunday. Tickets will be available on the gate at £10 adults and £5 for concessions.

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Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey
1 month ago

Lewes are brilliant club.
All “top table” clubs should get right behind them with the FA Cup prize equalization theme as something that could happen sooner rather than later.

Tim Stillman
Tim Stillman
1 month ago

Agreed, there is lots of discussion about how to re-ignite the FA Cup, I think even if you want to reduce it very cynically, doing something like this would be great PR. It actually reminds me of the arguments for reducing the cost of away tickets and, I think you’re right, with proper weight behind a campaign, the FA would be more amenable than people think.

Christopher Humphrey
Christopher Humphrey
1 month ago
Reply to  Tim Stillman

…..and it’s so simple to implement. No need to “employ” costly “jobs for the boys” consultants to fact find….as the ad suggests “Just Do It”.

Wolf
Wolf
1 month ago

Thanks for featuring my home town club’s inspiring efforts to bring more equality to the game, Tim! I’m a Lewes shareholder, and although rarely able to go to home games, the whole project is worth supporting anyway.

Women get just 1% of the men’s prize money – jeez…

LAParrot
LAParrot
1 month ago

Thanks Tim. Interesting and thought provoking article. Enjoyed reading about Maggie Murphy, we need more people like her in (women’s) football. Driven by the good of the game and not greed.

LAParrot
LAParrot
1 month ago
Reply to  LAParrot

Sorry, also meant to say it was good to read about the practicalities and difficulties of organising fixtures!