BRISBANE, Australia (AP) -- Bickering billionaires and the collapse of another club have cast a long shadow over football in Australia.
Officially, the 2011-12 regular season is finished and the A-League moves into the playoff stage this weekend. But it hasn't been a regular season at all.
Gold Coast United played the last four games under the administration of Football Federation Australia after billionaire owner Clive Palmer was stripped of his A-League license following a vocal campaign against organizers of the league.
It effectively left the domestic competition with nine teams, a long way from the anticipated 14 by this stage, and some disgruntled owners.
Under heavy scrutiny from critics, the FFA took steps to appease the owners by announcing that a "new governance structure for policy and strategic matters affecting the national competition" would involve three A-League club chairmen, two FFA directors and would be led by FFA deputy chairman Brian Schwartz.
The meeting between owners and league officials in Sydney on Thursday was prefaced by rumors of a major rift, and with the FFA executive bunkered down -- requests from The Associated Press for interviews with CEO Ben Buckley were rejected well ahead of the meetings.
Palmer was criticized by the FFA for his outspoken comments on the league and the game, and the wealthy mining magnate didn't help his cause when he later threatened legal action against the FFA, the federal government and made wild off-topic accusations generally about the political green movement being bankrolled by the CIA.
But his attacks on the high salaries and leadership of the FFA executives and the failure of the expansion program had some resonance. Coming on top of the general discontent with the millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on Australia's failed bid to host the 2022 World Cup, Palmer's stance generated plenty of calls for another billionaire, Frank Lowy, to stand down as FFA chairman.
"We now have a united stance in the next phase of building our national competition," Lowy said Thursday. "We're all in this together and I'm very excited that the knowledge and passion of the club owners will be harnessed in this new committee."
Central Coast Mariners chairman Peter Turnbull also welcomed the agreement, which gives owners more say on the competition structure and match schedule and strategies for maximizing revenue growth.
But there's still no decision on the future of a club on the Gold Coast, with a new group trying to raise funding to keep the team in one of Australia's fastest growing regions competing with the widely speculated new club in Sydney's west.
Critics have been lining up to take shots at the FFA in the last month. The assessment of Fairfax newspaper columnist Richard Hinds' was typical.
Palmer "is the price the FFA is paying for sticking its fingers in its ear and wishing its problems away. Worse still, for contriving through its aggressive lobbying to have the uncomfortable truth about its parlous financial position, its extravagant executive salaries, its bungling of the World Cup bid, its failure to fully integrate the A-League with the rest of the football community and the game's other awful truths buried," Hinds wrote recently.
The only thing that unifies the expert analysts, the players and the critics is the belief that football should be doing better in Australia.
More juniors -- 360,400 in 2009 -- play soccer in organized competitions outside of school hours than any of the three other football codes. It is also the most popular code in terms of participation across the board, but the popularity isn't reflected in ratings, revenue and attendance for the A-League.
Still, former FFA communications manager Bonita Mersiades, while conceding the FFA had made "poor decisions in terms of expansion," said the game was on the right path.
"If you measure where we've come from in the last 10 years, we've made immeasurable progress," she told The Associated Press. "Formation of the A-league itself and move away from ethnic and into geographical bases -- moving into the Asia confederation and qualifying for the (2006) World Cup for the first time in 32 years."
In direct contrast to that progress, Palmer set up lobby group Football Australia, poaching former FFA chief executive Archie Fraser to organize an independent national public commission of inquiry starting April 11.
"The support Football Australia has been overwhelming and we have received widespread interest from around the country," Fraser said. "The feedback we have received reflects the disenchantment with grassroots football people about how the game has been managed by Football Federation Australia."
The FFA announced record cumulative attendance figures (1,416,157) for the 2011-12 regular season, despite a reduction in the number of games, and a 46 percent improvement in TV ratings from the previous season. That reversed a downward trend since 2007-08, but the 10,490 average A-League crowds will inevitably be dwarfed by the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League. Those sports command more in TV revenue and have free-to-air broadcast deals, unlike the A-League.
The A-League kicked off with eight teams in 2005, in the wake of the heavily factionalized and defunct National Soccer League, and expanded to 11 at its peak in 2010-11, even attracting the likes of Robbie Fowler as a marquee player for the now defunct North Queensland Fury. Two clubs have folded and another, after being granted a license, didn't get off the ground.
Along those lines, Mersiades said she felt Thursday's meeting was something football in Australia needed.
"It's fair to say we're at a tipping point," Mersiades said. "There comes a time when an organization ... needs a circuit breaker in terms of what is happening."