If you build in Brazil, they won't necessarily come

Posted by Fernando Duarte

On paper, it should be a no-brainer: With the excitement generated by the Confederations Cup, World Cup and brand-new stadiums, Brazilian clubs should be experiencing a feel-good effect at least vaguely similar to the one that helped push the Bundesliga past its European counterparts as the highest-attended football league in the world in the past decade.

Reality, however, could mean Brazil ends up with more of a South Africa 2010 hangover scenario. Recently published attendances figures show that the openings of new grounds has had a positive effect in Campeonato Brasileiro matches, but it's hardly the stuff of dreams: After 12 rounds, the top flight so far averaged 13,600 fans per game, a paltry increase on the 13,148 average earlier this year compared to under 12,000 in 2012.

Bruno Spada/LatinContent/Getty ImagesA choice match between traditional Brazilian powers Sao Paulo and Flamengo failed to fill the 60,000 seats at the brand-new Mane Garrincha.

Even less inspiring is the fact that last year already marked the lowest figures in six years. Compared to numbers around the world, we see the obvious: Brazilian football still sits outside the top 10 in average attendance -- in fact, when taking into account the 2012 average, it sat below the MLS and even the Bundesliga 2 and the Chinese Superleague. Last weekend, the duel between Sao Paulo FC and Flamengo, two of the biggest winners in the history of Brazilian football, didn't fill up the 60,000 seats at Brasilia's brand new Mane Garrincha, which is set to host seven games in next year's World Cup.

It's cause for concern given that the venue is far away from both clubs' supporters bases, in Sao Paulo and Rio respectively, and chosen specifically for the supposed novelty factor amongst the local population.

The new arenas are giving the competition a lift, having registered an average of 26,052 fans between them. Before Flamengo vs. Sao Paulo, Mane Garrincha had averaged 52,891 fans in four games, but the obvious caveat is that the fixture list for the 2013 "Brasileirao" has been purposefully crammed with derbies in the early rounds, explaining why the arenas are busy. And as TV shots prove, the public tends to occupy the cheaper seats, leaving gaps galore for the cameras. Last month, the Maracana's first game after the Confederations Cup final saw only 35,000 attend the local derby between current Brazilian champions Fluminense and Vasco -- less than half of the stadium's 78,000 capacity.

"Even the players enjoy the game more with bigger crowds. There are beautiful arenas in Brazil, but we need people to make them look alive," said Clarence Seedorf, now in his second season for Rio side Botafogo.

Brazilian clubs have high expectations about the post-World Cup scenario, but the fact remains that in the last 30 years the league has only twice broken the 20,000 supporters per game mark. Part of the decline can be attributed to the "shrinking" of grounds thanks to adaptations imposed by FIFA in the 1980s that prevented Flamengo, for example, from attracting crowds of 120,000-plus to Rio.

But it shouldn't masquerade a decline much more rooted in a combination of factors that range from poor conditions for the fans to the absence of stars, especially from the mid-1990s onward when talent fled to Europe -- in 2005, for example, Brazilian clubs lost 463 players during the two transfer windows.

That said, Brazilian clubs are now known for importing quality, with a parade of well-known players plying their trade in the Brasileirao. So the problem must also lie on the fact the new arenas are far from a cheap place to get in. Unforgivably, Flamengo charged a minimum U.S. $50 for its recent match against minnows Portuguesa, a value that jumped to $75 for the rendez-vous with Ronaldinho and Atletico Mineiro.

Some commentators will even point to the introduction of a classic "first past the post" European league system in 2003, that replaced the much-loved playoffs. As fair as the new system was to the clubs with better management on and off the pitch and the stats showing increases in average attendance, the best mark reached in the "league" years was in 2009, when an average of 17,807 turned up per game.

So why the gap between domestic figures and the 50,291 per game average during the Confederations Cup? While it's true that a shorter tournament and diverse array of teams helps -- the Selecao included -- the vast difference in turnout still highlights a worrying sluggishness ahead of the World Cup.

(Also of worry: Brazilian clubs, in search of diverse revenue streams due to inflated TV rights, might struggle to command the same value among fans and sponsors alike once the World Cup leaves town.)

In short, clubs will not be able to rely only upon travelling circus-like schemes to keep the 12 World Cup stadiums free of cobwebs after 2014. There's a lot of homework to be done. Something is clearly amiss when the 2012 Brazilian champions Fluminense attract only 12,700 supporters per game, lagging behind even second and third divisions sides.

For years, Brazilian experts have been calling for clubs to think outside the box when it comes to their relationship with supporters. Maybe now they might start listening.

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