The New Lionesses
Interview: Diane Culligan Chairwoman, London City Lionesses
London City Lionesses have arrived in the women’s game with a new bold approach masterminded by chairwoman Diane Culligan.
The start of the 2019/20 season has further highlighted the swift growth in popularity of the women’s game, with enormous crowds in the WSL and England’s Lionesses outselling their male counterparts at Wembley Stadium. London City Lionesses are the newest club in the women’s game. Their ambitious chairwoman, Diane Culligan, hopes to ride on the crest of that wave and discusses the trials and tribulations of starting out in the second tier of the game.
London City Lionesses are a new club without the backing of a men’s team. How is life as a standalone club in the women’s’ game?
So far, very good. It’s a really exciting time for women’s football, as a whole, and we’re taking a different approach to other clubs. We believe that what we are doing will contribute to the development of the game and will emphasise the uniqueness of women’s football. By playing as a standalone women’s football club our brand differs from others and we believe that it will attract different kinds of sponsors and partners. We have no doubt that the London City Lionesses brand has a significant impact on the development of women’s football.
What have been the unique challenges you have faced, having to create the club from the ground up?
Like any new organisation or business, there is so much to do – everything from procedures to payroll. However, at the heart of London City Lionesses is quality football and that is our number one aim. We needed to put together a team of talented players and support staff and that has been our primary focus. We made the decision to go ‘full-time’, which is unusual for a team in the FA Women’s Championship but that allowed us to recruit players who matched our level of dedication and to build a really strong foundation of talent in the club. That squad includes a host of international players from the UK and from abroad. We want women footballers across the world to know London City Lionesses is a club that will value their commitment and will return it ten times over.
What makes the club different from the rest?
We are putting methods in place that allow the players to focus and concentrate on their football and to be as good as they possibly can be. A vital aspect of that is the players being full-time. Not only do we need the players in on a professional schedule, we need the infrastructure around them to encourage that development. The staff at the club are constantly asking ‘how can we get the best out of the girls?’. That question is being looked at from a technical, psychological and physical point of view and we have excellent individuals specialising in those roles. To us, it is so important to put things in place to allow the players to excel. This is not questioned within the men’s game and it must become standard practice.
I believe what we do off the pitch is also really important. Players at the club are part of this incredible journey that women’s football is taking. Their stories are all different and they need to understand how their uniqueness can inspire others. A number of our players are involved with the club outside of football, in bringing the London City Lionesses to life through community engagement and marketing. This gives a sense of teamwork which extends beyond what happens on the pitch. I believe we are all in a very privileged position and have some responsibility for the growth of the women’s game in the UK at this time. That responsibility extends to our fellow teams, leagues and governing bodies.
Are there unique opportunities for sponsorship or is it more difficult than an established club?
I think that we definitely offer a different opportunity to sponsors. We see ourselves as offering a platform which does not have the associated attributes of men’s football. This means that brands can position themselves differently with us. Globally, we can project as being in one of the most exciting cities in the world. We look at London as a diverse and cosmopolitan city and we don’t consider ourselves tied to one area or town in London, like football clubs traditionally do, or one shirt colour or badge.
For sponsors, now is the right time to come into women’s football. Growth is off the scale and value versus exposure is phenomenal. There have been some high-profile brands coming into the game, and we expect more to follow. We see our offering, as a partner, as different and powerful for brands who want to promote an association with girls and women enjoying success independently and not as an appendage to the men’s game.
How do you tell the world the story of London City Lionesses?
There is no doubt that social media is now an important tool for football clubs to use. It’s an important platform to market the club and to build on our brand even further. We have invested in an infrastructure which helps to tell that story, including agencies. The players are the most important part of that story. They are London City Lionesses and they have the opportunity to promote the club by promoting themselves. Ultimately, our story will be through our success on the pitch and that is the most compelling way of communicating our message.
What are your long-term ambitions for the club?
I would like to think London City Lionesses will be around in 150 years’ time. That is a goal I have in my mind – I’d love one day for the club to have a rich history like many of the men’s football clubs in this country. On a shorter timeline than that, the obvious goal is for us to be an established team in the Women’s Super League. There isn’t a particular pressure to achieve promotion in a certain time frame, but we are looking to implement a top-tier level of football on and off the pitch, that is built to last decades and ultimately, win honours.
Community outreach work is particularly important to you and the club, isn’t it?
We are very keen to get out into the local community to meet those that will come and support us. Through our work in local schools and the Sister Clubs programme, our players are always out and about, talking to young pupils and footballers about London City Lionesses. We also invite our Sister Clubs down to Prince’s Park to get involved with a normal day at the club and watch the players train. The girls love working with the younger generation and I really hope that through this work we can inspire some budding footballers – or to encourage young students to achieve their dreams in any field.
What is your role day-to-day?
Well, there is no typical day! From the start, I have been required to be involved almost every minute of every day. There is a lot to think about and so many great people to meet along the way, who all want what is best for the club. To give you a flavour, I have met recently to discuss our playing kit, planned a marketing campaign around our Christmas fixture and held talks with potential partners – so it really is a mixed bag at the moment, but I’m loving every minute.
You have an interesting background in football. Tell us about that.
I started by picking up bibs and cones for my son’s under 10s team at Hampstead FC. He was the goalkeeper, so no one is allowed to criticise ‘keepers in my book! I was sorting out kit, making sure the pitch was tidy after a game or training, making sure everyone got to their games and generally just helping out the manager. From there, I became vice-chair of the club and eventually chairwoman. We grew the club to around 40 teams, with approximately 1,000 players. Our tag line was “Why 1,001 players? Because there is always room for one more!” I was responsible for introducing and building up the women’s and girls’ sections. Our female sides won countless leagues, London Cups and County Cups – so we gathered a decent reputation. From there, I worked with local authorities and charities to build community football pitches for the benefit of local people. I learned a lot from each of these roles and I continue to regard the grassroots as vital to the success of the game overall.
What will success look like for LCL in five years’ time?
That would be having our own ground, definitely. Then I would like the club to build around the football pitch, with our own RTC (regional talent club) and education programmes. On the pitch, as I said, I would like us to be firmly established in the WSL. I would like to see us facilitating a pathway for footballers to join us at the grassroots level and develop through to excellence – in the form of professional footballers. A lot of work needs to happen behind the scenes to make that a reality.
Will you be aiming to be in the WSL by that point? What will the club need to do to make that step up?
We are working on that already. We are making sure we satisfy all requirements for the WSL but we also need to make sure we have the right mixture of players and staff to make that step up, as well as the surrounding infrastructure of the club.
What are some of the biggest challenges that women’s football, as a whole, still faces today?
Equality is still a big challenge in the women’s game. Progress has been made, no doubt, but the gap and pay gap between the men’s game is still there. The more people that watch women’s football, the better – I’d love to see women’s football added to Match of the Day! The grassroots game is vital to the growth of women’s football. In my mind, it’s a case of growing the pool of players. If there is a strong base to the pyramid, the quality of the top level of the game will undoubtedly improve. There needs to be a continuation of investment in facilities and coaching throughout the game and a closer link between education and sport. Clearly, there needs to be some joined up thinking throughout stakeholders to look at how we improve the game in general in this country and eventually win World Cups!
Attendance records are being broken at the top of the women’s game but what more can be done to improve attendances at smaller clubs?
It has been fantastic to see recent examples of truly big crowds in the WSL. Seeing nearly 78,000 people turning up to see England take on Germany at Wembley or tens of thousands to a North London derby sounds about right, but as with everything in our game we need to build the base and see people coming to watch football in numbers outside of the top tier. We believe the quality of football on display from our team will attract people and we invest in things like marketing and communications to get them in the stands and hopefully hooked! The matchday experience must be enjoyable and the football must be compelling – which I believe it is. An important innovation has been the introduction of The FA Player – which allows fans across the world to watch games at our level. People will understand when they attend that they can see football of the highest quality up close and personal. They can see every pass, tackle and move as football was intended to be watched.
Women’s football is finding its place in the football calendar. Do you think moving back to winter from summer was the right choice for the game?
I think it was absolutely the right decision from the FA to align the calendars. It gives our England team the best chance of competing on the big stage. That’s clearly evident in our recent performances at major tournaments. For clubs in the WSL, it also means a better chance of competing in the European competitions – where finals will be now at the end of the women’s football season.
The women’s game is constantly compared to men’s – is that fair?
It will always be compared as it is ultimately a very similar product, in business terms. The women’s game can be seen as a competitor to the men’s game now, with attendances growing and particular players gaining higher profiles. However, it is difficult. In England, there are thousands of professional male players in the game with considerably fewer female professionals. There are definitely things to take from the men’s game and apply here, but not everything can be replicated at this stage. My experience, however, tells me that there is never enough football for dedicated fans – high quality football will be in demand whether it is men or women on the pitch.
With a similar name, do you look to channel some of the recent success of England Lionesses?
It’s a popular name! I think everyone involved in the game in this country should be inspired by what England have achieved with their recent progress. Certainly, I know all our players aspire to play for their countries. We have had some call-ups for the England youth teams and I watch with immense pride when I see our players pulling on the Three Lions shirt. Hopefully we will see many more players doing the same in the years to come.
What do you think the women’s game will look like in 25 years’ time?
I’d love to see the ‘biggest game’ that gets talked about before any typical weekend be either a women’s or the men’s game. Like the Wimbledon women’s final, I expect the women’s big games will be sold out and there will be powerful, successful women stars who command attention through their talent. People may look back at today’s inequality and think of it as an anachronism – which it is. Maybe we could even see men’s and women’s games running closer together. You would watch a women’s game at 12pm on a Saturday, closely followed by a men’s game at 3pm for example. And finally, I don’t think it will be long until you see women coaching in the men’s game. A woman managing the England men’s team. Why not?
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Images: Stella Pictures & PA Images