The Sussex town of Lewes is proud of a rebellious history as fiery as its famous Guy Fawkes’ Night celebrations. Now, a new revolution is stirring in the South Downs as Lewes FC builds its fan ownership model. OW met the people behind the scheme.
The historic town of Lewes, nestled in the picturesque South Downs in East Sussex, is famous for being the birthplace of political writer Thomas Paine, the Harveys Brewery, having its own currency and its incredible Bonfire Night celebrations. There’s a new project catching fire at the moment in the town, and that’s Lewes FC’s fan ownership model.
Fan ownership is not a new concept. Most Bundesliga clubs have a ’50+1’ rule, meaning that fans always have a majority percentage share of the club. FC Barcelona – famously ‘more than a club’ – is a registered association, for which it is not possible to buy shares, only membership. More recently, the likes of FC United of Manchester and the MyFootballClub project have emerged in the UK.
Lewes Football Club in the Ryman Isthmian League Premier Division is blazing a trail of its own for fan ownership. As part of my interest in the revival of English non-league football, I recently purchased a share for an annual subscription of just £30 and caught up with the founders of its Community Club model to learn how it works.
The roots of Lewes FC’s fan ownership model
Charlie Dobres is one of the original founders of the Community Club model at Lewes FC, initiated in 2010. He told OW that it was clear that the previous ownership model had failed the club, as it has failed many others over the decades.
“We looked around at different versions of democratic ownership and took our inspiration from the predominant Bundesliga model, FC Barcelona and FC United of Manchester,” he explains. “The other key inspiration was Lewes itself. This is a town of radicals and revolutionaries and if any football club could sustain a democratic football club it is this one.”
Before going ahead with the same model as FC United of Manchester, the team at Lewes FC researched supporter ownership hard and spent months consulting with Supporters Direct, FC United themselves and Cobbetts solicitors, who had developed the model rules for supporter ownership, according to Dobres.
Lessons in fan ownership
Ebbsfleet United, which was taken over famously by the MyFootballClub project in 2007 before interest waned, provided Lewes FC with some important lessons.
“Ebbsfleet’s approach was fun and able to gain wide coverage and adoption pretty quickly,” Dobres said. “But our own approach is to build ownership steadily and to not over-promise on what people get or how quickly we can evolve the club.”
Dobres explained that Ebbsfleet tried to introduce a model where fans could decide on various football matters on a regular basis. In contrast, Lewes FC’s model is more akin to voting in a government, giving management a mandate and then allowing them to make the day-to-day decisions. Then, as with any democracy, those elected can be voted out if they don’t deliver.
How Lewes FC promoted its ownership scheme
Key to the ownership scheme’s success was marketing it effectively. The immediate audience was Lewes FC’s own fan base, Dobres said. They were targeted via local print media and at matches. In year one, the club limited the ownership offer to Life Shareholders who could give £1,000 or more. This was so that the club could rapidly build up working capital.
Having successfully raised well over £100,000 this way, on 8 July 2011 – the first anniversary of becoming community owned – Lewes opened the share offer up to everyone at £30 per year.
“This phase lifted ownership to around 450 people. It then slowed down at that point,” Dobres told OW. “So, acting on a good idea from a local retailer, we created our ‘Support & Save’ scheme whereby people’s ownership cards became a discount card in local businesses. We publicised this again through local print media but added a lot more social media into the mix.”
This move lifted ownership numbers past 900. Since then the club has expanded its promotion beyond Lewes and Sussex, leveraging regional, national and even international media coverage, courted via more ‘unusual’ activities and ideas.
“These have included building corporate beach huts – by way of comparison to other clubs’ corporate facilities – and a penalty shoot-out for local parliamentary candidates,” Dobres added. “But perhaps our most effective promotional tool are our match day posters. We appear to have broken the mold on the traditional (or non-existent) match posters by taking a more striking, creative approach. And our posters are now constantly circulated internationally whenever we produce them.”
Lewes FC’s Dripping Pan ground holds 3,000 spectators, 600 of whom are seated. According to Dobres, the number of people coming to games has held steady, although there have been games – specifically promoted – where the average 500-550 gate became 1,000-plus.
“Holding steady on fan numbers may not sound like a huge achievement, but this has happened against a backdrop of major financial restructuring, cuts in playing budget and some pretty dire seasons of football,” Dobres explained. “Without our ownership model and, crucially, our belief in promoting all our teams – not just the Men’s First Team – as well as our growing programme of community events/courses, we believe numbers would have fallen away significantly. We’ve spent five years rebuilding a firm foundation and this gives us confidence that we can now grow our fan numbers on a solid basis.”
What does the future hold for Lewes FC?
Lewes FC hopes that within five years it will have created a whole raft of new infrastructure in and around the Dripping Pan. This already includes a 3G pitch adjacent to the ground – finished this summer – and will see the construction of a brand new Community Clubhouse inside the ground for Lewes FC and other nearby sports clubs to use.
“We are then moving on from there so that, in 10 years’ time, The Dripping Pan will far and away be the most amazing non-league venue in the UK,” Dobres said. “In football terms, we believe that our current resources can see us re-establish our place in the Conference South league. If we get it right with our off-field business strategy, then we will create the financial platform to go on into the Conference National and from there…?”
How Lewes FC’s ownership scheme works
Dobres explained the Lewes FC ownership scheme: “It’s One Member, One Share, One Vote. People buy a share in the Lewes Community Football Club for £30 per year. You can add a donation on top and you can also buy a Life Share for £1,000, which means you no longer ever have to pay the annual £30 again. Whether you pay £30, £1,000 or £100,000 you still only get one share which means you can now stand for the Board and vote for the Board in annual elections where one third of the nine-person Board stands for election/re-election each time. Along with your share you also receive a certificate of ownership, a magnificent enamel club badge and an Owner’s card. The card doubles up as a ’Support & Save’ discount card, set up in partnership with Lewes & District local and small independent businesses, who offer various levels of discount whenever Lewes FC Owners show their card. Levels of discount range from 5% to 50% off, and it’s proved very popular, keeping the money in the Town and helping small businesses in the process.”
You can become an owner by visiting the Lewes FC website.
A big thank you to Kevin Miller and Charlie Dobres at Lewes FC, and fan/owner Roger Warner for helping put this together.