With the US Women's team suing their own federation ahead of the World Cup, the discussion around football's gender pay disparity is growing. DW visited the first club in the world to publicly commit to pay equality.
Take a stroll around the picturesque southeastern English town of Lewes and you'll soon notice a poster displayed in the front windows of shops and houses advertising the local football club's next match. The figure front and center is not a player or a coach but Emmeline Pankhurst, whose political activism in the early twentieth century is widely credited with helping women to get the vote in the UK.
The poster is advertising Lewes' trip to play Manchester United Women on May 11 and is part of a series designed to celebrate notable women from the cities of the club's opponents in the FA Women's Championship, the second tier of English women's football.
This isn't just a gesture. Lewes, a market town with a population of just 17,000, boasts the first, and so far only, professional or semi-professional football club to publicly commit to paying their male and female players the same, a campaign they call Equality FC.
Same budget for men's and women's teams
Prior to the start of the 2017-18 season, when Lewes FC's women's team were in the third tier and the men's team in the eighth, the club announced that "both teams will have the same playing budget with no discrimination." Lewes' men's team now plays in the seventh tier of English football.
The club's players are part time and earn about £150 (€175, $196) to £200 per week. In order to achieve parity, the community-owned club bumped up the women's budget rather than asking any male players to take a pay cut. For striker Jess King – who has played in Norway, Germany, Switzerland and England – the commitment to putting principle in to practice is critical .
"I think it's good that the club are pushing it (equality) because most places I've been say: 'We'll do this for the women and that for the women but they wouldn't back up what they'd say about women being equal with what they did. There wasn't the respect, and I feel like here that's visible."
Since the launch of their equality campaign, women's match attendances at the club's Dripping Pan ground, a 3000-capacity, 134-year-old stadium overlooked by the chalky cliffs of the South Downs, have risen by 500 percent and are now at a similar level to the men's average of 624.
As it stands, the scale is small. But with a model where £30 can buy anyone a membership and a vote on club operations, there's a feeling that anything is possible, particularly for the women's side. Attracting Fran Alonso to take charge is another reason for optimism.
The Spanish boss coached in the men's Premier League at Southampton and Everton under Ronald Koeman, now the Dutch national team coach, and Mauricio Pochettino, now in charge of Champions League semifinalist Tottenham Hotspur. While at Southampton, he asked Koeman if he could stop sitting on the bench at men's team games in order to coach the women's team as a volunteer. For a club of Lewes' size to attract someone with Alonso's pedigree and obvious enthusiasm is a coup. He says the attraction is in the ideology.
"I wouldn't have considered other jobs from the second tier of the women's game when I know in the fourth or fifth tier of the men's game the salaries are 20 times higher – but that wasn't important at that time," he says. "What was important was the project, and the message and why this clubs exists.
"The better we do on the field, the more people will ask 'How did they do that? Where did they come from? How is it possible to do that while paying women the same as men? That's impossible. Women don't generate the same revenue.' We will break boundaries, we will challenge the status quo and then people will start to believe in it."
Pushing for equality on and off the pitch
Karen Dobres, the club's Equality Campaign manager, echoes Alonso's ambitions for the club to push on both on the pitch and as a trailblazer towards greater equality in the game off it.
"Other clubs will not be able to pay their women the same as their men, take Manchester United for example – they're paying their men so much. But they should be aiming to do that. And if that underlies every decision you make…you can get towards it and you can think about what is actually fair and what you should be doing for the women's game.
"Because there's so much potential there. It's a moral decision but it's also an economic decision. You've got a saturated market with men's football. It will continue but it's saturated. The women's market is a new product and it's unexploited."
A long way to go
Despite the postivity about the future, both Dobres and King give examples of the sort of low-level sexism which they say has been prevalent elsewhere in the game. As well as examples of previous clubs switching the floodlights off while women's players were still training, King speaks with a controlled fury about being denied the chance to even buy boots from a manufacturer that men were given for free during her time abroad.
"All the lads were sat there wide eyed, they couldn't believe it," she says, adding that she feels the club not the manufacturer made the decision. "I was thinking ‘you're going to stop me from buying your boots?' so I just threw the boot down and left. I was obviously really annoyed."
King adds that, in her experience, the sexism comes from the top of clubs, with men's players having generally been supportive, while Dobres says the only real backlash the Equality FC campaign has received has been from the usual anonymous social media keyboard warriors, rather than exisiting fans, players or staff of the club or their opponents.
Almost two years after their initiative began, Lewes still appear to be the only club commited to this kind of equal pay initiative. Dobres doesn't expect that to be the case for long.
"We don't want to put anyone else down for not doing it but we do want to influence them and lead by example," she says. "The truth is, I think a lot of other clubs think we're a bit nuts because, who does that? Who pays their women the same as their men? But they won't think it for long because the women's game is massively growing."
The upcoming World Cup in France seems likely to boost the sport still further. Whether that, and the actions of the US and Danish national teams in demanding pay parity for international fixtures, will see other clubs follow Lewes' lead is uncertain. But Lewes' commitment to the cause is anything but.