By Ben Somerford | Asian Football Editor
At a time when all the attention in Australia should be on the A-League finals or Tuesday's competition awards night, there's another dark cloud hanging over the sport. The announcement by Newcastle Jets owners on Tuesday morning that they'd be handing back their licence to Football Federation Australia (FFA) has rocked the code.
It was only last week the FFA officially kicked Clive Palmer's Gold Coast United out of the A-League, replacing them with a new club to be based in western Sydney as they strive for a 10-team competition in 2012-13 with the next TV rights deal to be negotiated soon. And that's the most alarming thing for the competition; the demise of two privately owned clubs in a week.
Palmer's Gold Coast, like Newcastle, are the prime examples of the issues facing the A-League's private ownership model. Once the owner, in this case Nathan Tinkler, has had enough for whatever reason and pulls his money out, it's unlikely the club can survive.
But that's a far too simplistic argument against the private ownership model. It goes deeper. There are those who say these millionaires are egotistical and their decisions are founded on similar lines, but the reality is they do have a lot of goodwill in football, otherwise why would they have got involved in the first place (surely not to make money)? They cannot enjoy delivering another negative news story for the A-League.
The point is, their confidence in the A-League and the FFA has broken down and there must be questions asked about why. That's at the heart of this whole issue and something which the football association, its chairman Frank Lowy and chief executive Ben Buckley must learn from.
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From the public war of words with Palmer to the looming legal battle with Tinkler's Hunter Sports Group (HSG), the FFA must ask how it got to this?
When explaining the reasons behind the Jets' decision, HSG chief executive officer Troy Palmer explained that they'd lost confidence in the FFA and also added: "It is about removing ourselves from an administration in which we have an untenable relationship."
At the heart of their grievances was the $5 million acquisition fee they paid to the FFA when they took up ownership of the club in 2010. The Jets were unhappy that their fee was more than other clubs had paid, but Buckley explained there were different prices for each team based on a variety of factors, including the club's established position in the local market.
Adelaide United chairman Greg Griffin made a good point when he said Tinkler should have done “due diligence” when they took over the club and researched other acquisition fees, and there's been a fair bit of support about that argument from Australian football pundits. Griffin's point is sound, but why the FFA were unable to communicate that to the HSG remains the biggest problem. A big part of the FFA executives' job is done at the negotiating table and their inability to transfer and explain the message and appease the Jets' owners is the concern.
|"The FFA chairman Frank Lowy and I have made numerous offers to meet in person with Nathan Tinkler. Just two weeks ago a scheduled meeting was cancelled by HSG at short notice"
- FFA chief executive Ben Buckley
There's all sorts of talk about dodging meetings and that's not ideal, but that's not at the heart of the issue. In recent months, the two parties have met to discuss this issue behind closed doors, as should be the case, but there's clearly been no resolution. Now it's out in the public, it's simply another ugly episode for the game in Australia.
But when two clubs fold in a week, questions need to be asked. When Gold Coast's Palmer made his grievances with the FFA public, a lot of it had to do with his concerns not being heard and resolved. The Jets are airing similar sentiments and that's something which must resonate with the FFA. Again, keeping owners onside at the negotiating table, no matter how big their egos, is a fundamental part of the FFA executive gig. This part of the job appears not to be the forte of Buckley, who is naturally very shy.
The blame for this latest episode may or may not lie with the FFA, but they could have helped alleviate the issue and resolved it before it got to this stage. It's a saga which you'd never see in the well-run AFL, or when former FFA chief executive John O'Neill was in charge in the early days of the A-League. But for football nowadays it's becoming a recurring story, and questions need to be raised.