Rebels hope players can deliver winning sales pitch

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE, April 29 (Reuters) - With the cash-strapped Australian Rugby Union eager to attract private investors to the Melbourne Rebels, the struggling Super Rugby team's on-field performances have inexorably become part of the sales pitch.

The ARU announced a A$6.3 million ($5 million) loss for 2014 last week, with A$3.3 million invested to prop up the Rebels, who are battling to maintain rugby's foothold in one of the world's most competitive sporting markets.

With more than A$5 million spent on the club the year before, the governing body is keen to find financial backers to share the burden and keep a fifth Australian team running in the world's toughest provincial tournament.

On the field, the players have done their best to put some polish on the team's prospects, winning four games halfway through the season and some hard-earned respect after managing only four wins in all of 2014.

"At the end of the day on-field performance takes care of everything," Rebels CEO Peter Leahy told Reuters of a side that jostles for attention in a city boasting more than a dozen professional teams from indigenous football, soccer and rugby league competitions.

"When you've got a period of stability, it's amazing how much can be achieved. The club becomes a more attractive proposition to investors and sponsors."

The ARU took over the Rebels from 2013, when a consortium of private investors walked away from the club after burning through A$8 million in its first three seasons.


Pundits in Australia's traditional rugby states of Queensland and New South Wales grumble that the country cannot really afford four Super Rugby teams, let alone five.

The Rebels might seem a hard sell but salvation may come in the form of the competition's expansion to 18 teams next year.

A new side each from Argentina and Japan, and a sixth from South Africa will coincide with a five-year broadcasting agreement that promises a bigger slice of revenues.

Potential backers might also be enticed by the promise of exposure to new markets, with Singapore set to host some 'home' games for the Japanese side.

Leahy is convinced his team will be paying its own way within the life of the next broadcasting deal but concedes backers would need patience and emotional investment.

"I think they need to be rugby people," he said. "It's a little bit like a decision to be a member of a sporting club.

"There is a degree of emotion in that personal decision but you're not just going to be throwing money away.

"The investment horizon on something like this has to be a minimum of 10 years."

Leahy bristled at suggestions his club and Western Force, another team that has long struggled for credibility in rugby backwater Perth, are dragging the game in Australia under.

The Rebels were the "leanest side" in the competition, he said, with off-field costs trimmed to the bone and the marketing budget threadbare.

He conceded mistakes had been made in the past, partly due to the team's hasty birth in 2011 which had recruiters scrambling to pad out a roster with cast-offs and journeymen. (Editing by John O'Brien)

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