ABOVE: Lucy with READY team-mates Preeti Shetty and Aisha Nazia at the Equal Playing Field Equality Summit, London 2022
For our first #womeninsport interview of 2023, Onuba Comms’ Claire Walker caught up with Lucy Mills, who has spent her career championing football for good and the empowerment of women in and through sport.
With extensive experience in the design and management of numerous sport-for-development programmes for the likes of the Barça Foundation and FIFA, she now has her sights trained on breaking down gender barriers in the world of tech.
Onuba Comms: Thanks for your time Lucy, we’d like to begin by asking about your new adventure as the co-founder of READY. What is READY and what prompted you to make this latest move in your career?
Lucy Mills: READY is an education, consulting and advisory business specialising in innovation and Web 3.0 to supercharge women’s sport. It’s all about getting ready for the future, ready for sport, ready for innovation.
I’ve been working in football, women’s football and sport for good for the past 18 years, so this move into the tech world might seem like a bit of a gear change but it’s actually been a parallel journey. I first got introduced to cryptocurrencies a few years ago by my colleagues in football and that sparked my interest in the wider world of Web 3.0 and the concept of regenerative economics and public good in particular.
When I saw some of those elements creeping into the world of sport in the form of fan tokens, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and decentralised autonomous organisations (DAOs) related to sports property ownership, it felt like the two worlds were converging. But when I looked into it, I realised that the majority of the investment, risk and ideas were led by men and being narrowly applied to top-end men’s professional sport.
I found it concerning and frustrating that women were nowhere in the picture when it came to sports tech and, by extension, Web 3.0. So, I decided to write a free introductory course to Web 3.0 in sport, which condensed my own learning journey. We successfully launched that as a free resource in 2022 and that was the start of READY!
OC: Is there any overlap between this new tech journey and the sports development work you have been involved with to date?
LM: We feel that many of the systemic challenges faced in women’s sport can be addressed through innovation and by doing things differently, which is what Web 3.0 is all about.
There are gatekeepers and institutions that have prohibited and continue to hinder women from having recognition, visibility and investment and so, even though the focus is now on tech, I see it as a continuation of the work I’ve always been involved in to promote the empowerment of women in and through sport.
OC: Lewes FC were famously the first pro club to introduce equal pay conditions for their men’s and women’s teams. Could you tell us a bit about your association with them?
LM: Lewes FC is a beacon of inspiration, of hope. It’s a force for good in football. When I first came across the Equality FC initiative, it all felt very coherent; the way the club invests its money, its splitting of resources, its values.
The club is 100% fan-owned. It’s a not-for-profit Community Benefit Society so, for £50-100 a year people can buy a share and become a club owner. That’s what I did initially and then I stood for election to join the board of directors. I’ve been a board member for a year and a half now and I absolutely love it!
Under the leadership of the CEO, Maggie Murphy, we’ve professionalised as a club and transitioned in terms of growth. The women’s team is now training full time as a professional team, competing in the FA Women’s Championship. The decision to split resources equally among men and women has benefitted the men’s team, the women’s team, the community, the environment and the culture.
OC: Women’s football is obviously very close to your heart. How does it make you feel to see the enormous rise in popularity the sport is enjoying right now?
LM: England’s been incredible, I was obviously at the final of the WEURO [in 2022]. I’ve been supporting the team and watching their growth for a very long time, going back 15 years when they were playing in Hartlepool in front of 200 people.
Women’s football is a hot topic right now. It’s marketable and profitable in certain countries and that leads to greater acceptance in some of the men’s clubs that are maybe allocating a small percentage of their budgets to the women’s teams. But that’s only happening in a handful of countries, so I really feel there’s a need to have a balanced appreciation of the growth that’s happening.
I’d like to see women’s football continue to grow and be led by experts of the women’s game – of course many of these are trailblazers and pioneers who were in the game long before it become fashionable.
OC: Would you say things are finally moving in the right direction, or is there more work to be done?
LM: Football is doing quite well but the global stats are still very alarming for women’s sport in general. Statistics show that around 0.002% of global sponsorship dollars goes to women’s sport and between 0-7% of media coverage is on women athletes, so there’s a lot to be done at all levels.
That’s why I’m optimistic about technology, digitalisation and Web 3.0. Thinking about new forms of community, new forms of investment and new organisational structures with the potential to listen to and prioritise the voices of women and women fans. Because football, and sport in general, has to do things differently if it wants appeal to younger generations and reach new audiences. Many women and other groups, such as the LGBTQ community for example, feel very marginalised from football. But the biggest growth opportunity is reaching new fans, which is really exciting and that’s why I’m so enthusiastic about the work we’re doing at READY.
OC: You’ve devoted your career to designing and implementing programmes that use sport and particularly football to empower and educate. What is it that makes it such a powerful development tool?
LM: First of all, football has historically been a male bastion of heteronormativity – which has fuelled discrimination and inequality. I think that being able to use and harness that in a certain way to try to disrupt and challenge those norms and stereotypes can be really powerful.
The second thing is that football is so globally popular. With a reported four billion fans around the world, it would be hard to find a place where people don’t have a reference linked to football. It’s also cheap and, in terms of being a sport that can bring people together, relatively simple to play. So, those are all fantastic ingredients.
Importantly, though, we need to intentionally design football so that it isn’t a space that is exclusionary, intimidating or perpetuates norms. I have dedicated most of my career preoccupied with the design of the game – so that it is inclusive and enjoyable. There’s a lot that goes into making sure a football programme is successful and impactful.
DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee in question only.
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