Rugby - Western Force ask fans for A$10m to save franchise

SYDNEY (Reuters) - The embattled Western Force Super Rugby franchise have launched a A$10 million (6.14 million pounds) fundraising drive to save it from possibly being cut from the competition as early as next year.

SANZAAR, made up of the South African, New Zealand, Australian and Argentine rugby unions, met in London two weeks ago to address widespread criticism of the unwieldy 18-team format of its provincial competition.

Fevered speculation about the shape of the agreement followed with media reports in Australia and South Africa indicating that a total of up to three teams from those two countries would be axed for 2018.

The Perth-based Force is one of the franchises in the firing line and coach Dave Wessels said on Wednesday a lack of information from SANZAAR was unsettling players and proving hard to recruit new ones.

The side, however, said on Thursday it would be asking for fans to purchase a total of 10,000 shares at A$1,000 each to keep the franchise afloat and take it out of Australian Rugby Union (ARU) ownership.

"Fans will own the club and we'll have the rights to operate a professional Western Australian team that can participate in the Super Rugby competition," Western Force Owners Limited chairman Tony Howarth said in a statement.

The Force said the community ownership model was similar to that of Spanish soccer giants Barcelona and of the NFL's Green Bay Packers.

Founded as an expansion team in 2006, the Force has struggled to gain a foothold on and off the pitch in a part of Australia far removed from rugby union's eastern heartland.

The ARU were forced to bail the team out last year to the tune of A$3 million.

The Force have managed to accumulate a winning record in just two of their 12 seasons and have won just one of their three games this year.

They face the unbeaten seven-times champion Canterbury Crusaders in Christchurch on Friday.

(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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