MLS's footprint in Brazil provides an option amid domestic league woes
In recent years, couch potato soccer fans in Brazil have grown used to dividing their time between watching local clashes such as Corinthians vs. São Paulo or Atlético Mineiro vs. Cruzeiro and tuning into the great and the good of the big European Leagues, be it El Clásico, Bayern vs. Dortmund, or Manchester City vs Manchester United. Now, following the news that MLS has signed a four-year TV deal with one of Brazil’s biggest sports channels, SporTV, they are just as likely to settle down to watch Columbus Crew vs. Vancouver Whitecaps or Sporting Kansas City vs. Real Salt Lake as they are Flamengo vs. Fluminense or Juventus vs. Roma.
MLS says that the deal with SporTV, part of the Globosat network (Brazil’s biggest cable TV company), is part of the league’s continued international expansion.
"This new agreement with Globosat is further illustration of the growing demand for Major League Soccer in the global media rights marketplace…(we) are confident that together we will create even greater awareness for the sport, our clubs and our stars,” said Gary Stevenson, President and Managing Director of MLS Business Ventures.
While selected MLS games are also broadcast in Brazil by ESPN, the SporTV deal promises to take coverage of the league to a new level by showing two regular season games a week, the All-Star Game, playoff matches and more.
The deal also says something about the state of the game in Brazil, the traditional (and self-titled) país do futebol (“country of soccer”), winner of five World Cups and home to greats such as Garrincha, Pelé, Tostão, Ronaldinho and today’s boy who would be king, Neymar, as well as giant clubs such as Flamengo and Corinthians–and about what Brazilian fans think of the USA when it comes to the sport they have made their own.
Perhaps due to distance, the sheer size of the country, or its own rich domestic heritage, Brazil took a long time to open its soccer borders to the rest of the world.
“We didn’t have much perspective…it was just (local state championship) the Campeonato Mineiro and the (national league) Campeonato Brasileiro and playing for Brazil” said Atlético Mineiro’s all-time leading scorer and former Brazil international Reinaldo in an interview with The Blizzard magazine. “There was no talk of going to Europe. The World Cup was our only chance to see how other countries played. When we saw Holland play in 1974, we were amazed. We didn’t know anything about football outside Brazil.”
TV coverage of international soccer improved over time, but even in the early 1990s, the few foreign soccer shirts visible on the streets of Rio or São Paulo were generally limited to those of European clubs who had signed a Seleção star, such as the Barcelona of Romário or the Deportivo de La Coruna of Bebeto.
But the increasing globalization of the game has meant that Brazil’s leading players now ply their trade in European leagues, rousing interest in such competitions back home. At the same time, growing access to the internet and cable TV, itself a result of the country’s economic expansion in recent years, has given Brazilians the means to watch the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in action every week.
La Liga and Serie A, long the traditional first ports of call for big name Brazilians in Europe, were the first to receive regular TV and press coverage. As the number of cable TV channels expanded, matches from the marketing tsunami that is the Premier League and the Bundesliga began to be broadcast live, as well as those from smaller European leagues, such as Ligue 1 and even the Eredivisie. Soccer in countries like Portugal and Russia, where large numbers of Brazilian players were based, also became available to fans back home.
Now it is the turn of MLS, helped in no small part by the presence of Kaká at Orlando City and the league’s dozen or so other Brazilian players, including LA Galaxy star midfielder Juninho. Flavio Augusto da Silva’s ownership of Orlando City and Ronaldo’s stake in the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers have also stirred up considerable interest among the Brazilian media.
But other factors have helped to change opinions about U.S. soccer in Brazil. The steady improvement of the U.S. national team is one, perhaps coupled with the fact that Brazilian fans have realized that the days of their own jogo bonito, the beautiful game encapsulated by the skill and grace of the national team at the 1970 and 1982 World Cups, are long gone.
Brazilian soccer’s reduced circumstances–a World Cup trophy drought stretching back to 2002, a dearth of truly world class talent (Neymar and arguably Thiago Silva apart), the emergence of Spain’s tiki-taka and Germany’s smooth blend of power and style, not to mention the coruscating humiliation of the 7-1 defeat against said Germans in Belo Horizonte last July–mean that fans have learned to embrace a less aesthetically pleasing but more hardworking and efficient style of play, personified by current national team boss Dunga, gradually winning over the critics with eight wins from his first eight games.
There are few national teams that fit those characteristics more than the U.S. men's national team, and the country’s presence at the last seven World Cups, combined with the gritty performance of Jurgen Klinsmann’s side in Brazil last summer, has earned the U.S. a grudging, if hardly effusive, respect in Brazil. Whereas older Brazilian fans still dream of the days when the two countries were galaxies apart in soccer terms, the younger generation that watched the World Cup was more likely to say “you know, this U.S. team isn’t bad – I mean, it’s not great either, but then neither are we.” In short, Brazilians are unlikely to be as sniffy about soccer in the USA today as they might have been in the past.
If the gap between the national teams of the U.S. and Brazil is arguably narrower than ever before, then a comparison of the two domestic leagues will make even more encouraging reading for MLS executives. While the recent threat of strike action and ongoing debate over issues such as salary inequality and league structure are signs that not everything in the MLS garden is rosy, U.S. players and fans should be thankful that they are spared the chaotic state of domestic soccer in Brazil.
Brazilian clubs are mired in staggering debt, with the country’s teams owing an estimated $750 million to the government alone, not to mention mountains of private debt. The financial crisis means players at even the biggest clubs can go months without being paid–a number of senior players at Santos, the former home of Pelé and Neymar, recently left the club after rescinding their contracts due to unpaid wages. A shambolic fixture calendar can result in successful teams playing over 70 games a season, mainly because of the outdated state championships that run from February to May, where the country’s biggest clubs play games against tiny local opposition.
Fan violence remains a major concern–there have been around 275 soccer related deaths in the country since 1988. While the new World Cup arenas have brought added comfort and safety, ordinary fans claim they are being priced out by astronomical ticket prices–a recent survey found that tickets in Brazil are the second-most expensive in the world, trailing only China, when compared with local earnings.
Things are so bad that a players’ union, Bom Senso FC, has formed to protest against the state of the game.
“Soccer in Brazil is extremely disorganized at the moment. It’s difficult for me, as a Brazilian, to understand what they’re doing,” said Kaká in an interview with Brazilian TV earlier this year. “It’s part of our future in Brazil. We love soccer, we love the national team. It’s hard to see the fixture calendar and the clubs in this situation. “
The result of all these negative factors is that average Serie A crowds usually hover around the 15,000 mark, and stadiums often sit alarmingly empty for all but the biggest games–a factor in the current plight of a number of the World Cup arenas, which are struggling to draw crowds after the tournament. With this in mind, it was hardly surprising when respected sportswriter Paulo Vinicius Coelho wrote before last a clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona last year that fans should enjoy the game, because they are “…citizens of the world–it’s Brazilian soccer that isn’t.”
The fact that the average MLS crowd last year was a healthy 19,000 plus has been much commented on by Brazilian fans and journalists, who question why soccer attendance in the país do futebol are around 25% lower than they are in o país do beisebol, basquete e futebol americano. The remarkable 109,000 crowd at the Real Madrid vs. Manchester United friendly at Michigan Stadium last summer also made more than a few Brazilians sit up and take notice.
Alongside the presence of Brazilian players, decent sized crowds that produce a vibrant, colorful spectacle, a growing global presence and an improving, if arguably still limited, standard of play, the cultural and practical factors (not to mention the designated player financial structure) that make it easy for the MLS to attract high profile foreign players such as Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry or David Villa, add to the league’s overseas marketing potential. Brazilian clubs can only look on with envy. Even considering the financial challenges involved in such signings, it is undoubtedly easier to tempt a Henry or a Villa to New York than it would be to convince such players to move to São Paulo or Belo Horizonte.
Despite its current economic woes, Brazil has in recent years transformed itself into a nation of consumers, with millions moving out of poverty and entering the lower and middle classes. Sales of consumer durables, from smartphones to flat screen TVs, have rocketed, along with the aforementioned cable TV and internet packages. It is perhaps a shame, then, that MLS seems arguably better placed to take advantage of such new consumers than the domestic game in o país do futebol.
James Young is a Brazil-based journalist and contributor to SI.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @seeadarkness.