MELBOURNE, April 2 (Reuters) - The Melbourne Rebels could lose as much as A$3 million ($2.77 million) this season as they battle to maintain a foothold in Australia's crowded sports market.
The Rebels have been propped up financially by the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) since the team's private investors withdrew last year and face stiff competition for sports fans' hearts and wallets in a city dominated by Australian Rules football.
"(A$3 million) is a worst-case scenario," Rebels CEO Clarke said in comments published by The Australian newspaper on Wednesday. "I'm certainly not anticipating a A$3 million loss for the Rebels.
"There are a few levers within our control and we are pulling those levers as we go through the season.
"I am quite buoyed in some instances in terms of membership, gate etc. There are some pretty positive signs.
"It is hard to know because we still have five home games to go. Depending on how the team performs, that could influence significantly what the end result is going to be.
"We are still selling memberships and we are in discussions for some sizeable sponsorships, which could impact this year. I'm optimistic, naturally, but I believe it will be a much better result than $3m."
The Rebels are hardly alone in their financial struggles, with most of Australia's five Super Rugby teams awash in red ink and dependent on ARU handouts.
Local media reports have said only 2011 champions Queensland Reds are breaking even in the southern hemisphere competition, placing a huge burden on the ARU's already strained resources.
Though competing against nine Australian Rules teams, two top-flight soccer clubs and a National Rugby League team in Australia's second city, the Rebels have carved out a dedicated fan base and gradually improved their on-field record since their foundation season in 2011.
However, the encouraging signs have not prevented pundits from suggesting the Rebels should be shut down and Australia's conference in Super Rugby reduced to four teams to shore up the code's parlous financial situation.
Clarke said he thought the Rebels could break even by 2016.
"It is worthwhile noting that a break-even proposition in rugby other than the Queensland Reds would be a very good outcome and we would be in good company," he said.
"We are not Robinson Crusoe in the struggle to run a profitable organisation, but I think we are focusing on the right areas to turn it into that."
The Rebels are 2-3 for the season heading into their away match against New Zealand's Highlanders in Dunedin.
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford