"This is what we should be doing" - Preston Lions investing in their female cubs
Traditionally, any investment by NPL clubs is synonymous with the benefit of their respective Senior Men sides. Newly promoted NPL Victoria 2 side Preston Lions recently sent shockwaves throughout the Australian football landscape. They have pledged to cover all registration and insurance fees incurred by their junior girls' players in 2023. Club President David Cvetkovski spoke to Front Page Football about this game-changing initiative.
The Preston Lions are investing heavily in their junior girls program. (Preston Lions)
Season 2022 was a resounding success for the Preston Lions. Coming off the back of two seasons scrapped because of COVID-19, leaving the resurgent club languishing and frustrated in NPL Victoria 3, Preston entered its 75th year with a point to prove, on and off the field.
Despite the club's 75 years of existence, its women's program only entered its 23rd year after launching in the late 1990s. It's a journey that has been spectacularly followed by stalwart Diana Piculovski, who has been representing her much-beloved club since the infancy of its female side.
Preston President Cvetkovski admits that the conditions Piculovski and her teammates are enjoying today are a far cry compared to only a few years ago. He felt it was his job as the club's leader to do something about it.
"We began a total transformation of the club many years ago. About 4-5 years ago, our women’s team was languishing at a State League One level, and there just wasn’t much attention put on this program," Cvetkovski shared.
"We operate to a five-year strategy, and I thought it was a priority. I’m a father of two daughters, so I thought it was a priority that our women’s team and our junior girls program got the attention they deserved."
This transformation has led to Preston's junior girls program expanding by almost 30% each year. Long-term thinking has also paid dividends for the Senior and Reserve Women's sides on the field. They mirrored the success of Preston's Senior Men in 2022, with all three sides winning their respective competitions' premiership and championship honours.
Anyone who has tuned into a Preston Lions home game in the past couple of years would have a hard time not noticing the number of people who support Makedonia. Cvetkovski attributes the return of that proud community to the work the club has put in to ensure young male or female footballers are engaged from a young age. Engaging these players from young ages, in turn, engages the rest of their families.
"What we have experienced from making this (engaging young footballers) a key focus of our strategy is on Friday nights, even when the Senior Men play, 35% of our attendance of sometimes up to 4000 people are female! The mums are now coming, and the grandmas are coming, all with their children!" Cvetkovski said.
"I am at the games with my daughters and my mum; my 93-year-old grandma has come to games. It has become acceptable; it has become part of the culture!"
Preston currently fields seven junior girls teams, excluding its Senior Women and Reserves sides. After pledging to cover registration and insurance costs for all of them in 2023, Cvetkovski expects to gain at least three additional teams.
This story has taken the local football scene by storm, but Cvetkovski stresses that this is not a fad or a publicity stunt. Instead, it is something that Preston has been doing to take care of its community for years. Meanwhile, they want to ensure that any child who wants to represent the club is not excluded because of the financial cost.
"I think it is critical (making the club financially accessible) in a football ecosystem where some clubs are having to charge over $2,000. We have been wearing on average in the vicinity of 18,000 to 25,000 dollars per year in subsidy, before this announcement, to ensure that every child that wanted to play could play for our club," Cvetkovski said.
"We have worn this historically; even through COVID, we wore this. Why can we do it? A lot of clubs have been asking, 'hey Dave, how are you doing this?' I’ve engaged with everything from the council to our sponsors, and I haven’t had a sponsor say they weren’t happy to put a little bit more in to do this."
Speaking specifically about Preston's "Girls Play Free 2023" initiative, Cvetkovski paid tribute to the support he has received from the club's existing sponsors.
"Our sponsors are amazing. I’ve gone to the women’s sponsors, junior sponsors, and now even the men’s sponsors are asking how they can help. I think we will be able to get more sponsors now because we have been overwhelmed by the response of people saying that this is a great initiative. I don’t want the pat on the back because this is what we should be doing," Cvetkovski added.
One of the seven Preston Lions junior girls teams President David Cvetkovski is expecting to multiply on the back of the club's "Girls Play Free 2023" announcement. (Preston Lions)
It is no secret that clubs like Preston have National Second Division aspirations, and this initiative is a big tick in that department. But Cvetkovski believes this move can significantly impact the traditionally underrepresented females of the club's community.
"I am not doing this because of the National Second Division; I am doing this because we need to do this. This (initiative) shows that the club's aspiration is to be a contemporary, big club," he said.
"First of all, the kids need to have fun; they need to create friendships, and then if they learn the game even better. Then if one of them becomes an incredible player in the next ten years, well, good, but are we doing it for them to become unbelievable players? No, we are doing it for their fun and for people to get together first and foremost. Whatever happens from there is in each kid’s hands."
Preston's vision extends far beyond the football pitch according to Cvetkovski. (Preston Lions)
It promises to be an exciting year for Australian football, with the country preparing to host the 2023 Women's World Cup. Cvetkovski reflected on how far the game has come, especially for females, when looking at his two daughters.
"I look into their eyes when they put on their kits to go to training or play with their friends on the weekend, and there is no better feeling for me as a father. This (initiative) gives our kids purpose, and in line with the World Cup, our game can only get bigger if we do things like this right," he said.
Despite the positives that this initiative and the World Cup will create, Cvetkovski is concerned about the state of Victoria's facilities for the country's most participated grassroots sport.
"I don’t know if our facilities, infrastructure, and support mechanisms are growing at the same pace (as the demand). We need to continue working with council and local government to support the infrastructure because we are light years behind in infrastructure, especially in Victoria," Cvetkovski said.
"Most of the clubs you speak to now are underwater. Ours is a winter sport, and our grounds, especially in Melbourne this year with the water, can’t cope. We probably lost three of our junior grounds for at least 70% of the junior season.
"On the back of this, I need to continue lobbying the growth so we can have more infrastructure put in place. The reality is from the 1980s until probably about 6-7 years ago; there wasn’t much investment in football."
Clubs like Preston symbolise all that is good about football. In a world of conflict and division, the Lions have galvanised their community, inviting different cultures to join their ever-growing base.
Other clubs would do well to duplicate Preston's commitment to creating a welcoming community for all stakeholders. Should 2023 play out as expected, it will expose just how popular the sport is in this country. Ambitious clubs like Preston may finally enjoy the fruits of their hard work when the demand for new facilities becomes undeniable. Or when the time comes to introduce a National Second Division.
Looking for similar content? Click here to read about South Australian sleeping giant West Adelaide and their return to top-flight football in the state.