A-League looks to continue fan growth in its 11th season

Updated Oct 5, 2015 at 8:05p ET

SYDNEY (AP) Australian football's A-League opens its 11th season Thursday hoping to continue surging audience growth while wrestling with player discontent and financial crises affecting some clubs.

The league set records for live and television audiences last season, furthering its attempt to push football more deeply into the Australian sporting mainstream. Its ambition remains to rival the popularity of rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules football.

Almost 1.7 million fans attended matches last season – an A-League record – and the 106,000 who went to games in the second round of the season was also a record. At the same time television audiences swelled with more than 5 million viewers tuning into matches, up 23 percent on the previous year.

More than 440,000 watched the Grand Final between Melbourne Victory and Sydney.

Meanwhile, Football Federation Australia has been embroiled in a bitter pay dispute with players which led to the cancellation of a tour to the United States by the women's national team.

A new collective bargaining agreement being ratified by the players' union, Professional Footballers Australia, is also a concern for FFA boss David Gallop.

The two parties had agreed to terms for a four-year deal that would take in the national men's and women's teams and A-League, but Gallop said Tuesday that the protracted discussions have taken away from the league's build-up.

He rejected fears the negotiations would prevent the season kicking off.

''The fans would expect that the games would go ahead in any circumstances and the PFA recognize that as well,'' he said.

There is also concern about the relative financial health of some of the league's 10 teams. While last year's winner Melbourne Victory, and crosstown rival Melbourne City – backed by the owners of Manchester City – are in rude health, teams at the lower end of the league are struggling.

Three-time champions Brisbane are troubled by the financial problems of their owners – the Indonesian Bakrie Group – and the Newcastle Jets are without an owner after the league took over the license previously held by troubled mining magnate Nathan Tinkler.

Though most clubs experienced increased attendances at home games last season – led by the Victory's average home crowd of 25,000 – several still face a tenuous financial future.

That partially explains the dearth of new stars this season. Since Dwight Yorke, Alessandro Del Piero and Emile Heskey graced the league, clubs have struggled to attract major marquee names.

Former Spain star David Villa had a four-match stint with Melbourne City last season, loaned by New York City in a deal brokered by the club's mutual owners. Sydney's international marquee signing, Austrian Marc Janko, was the leading scorer last season with 16 goals ahead of Victory's Albanian striker Besart Berisha.

Brisbane has signed Spanish attacking midfielder Corona from Almeria, Sydney has taken on 31-year-old Slovakian midfielder Filip Holosko to replace Janko, while Western Sydney Wanderers have secured Italian journeyman Federico Piovaccari, who joins the 16th club of his career.

The return of Australian internationals Oliver Bozanic, to , and Dario Vidosic, to the Wanderers, after recent stints in the Swiss Super League, adds some strength.

The league begins Thursday with a match between Western Sydney and Brisbane. Victory opens their title defense on Friday at Adelaide.

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