Brazil learning a new beat

Brazil learning a new beat

American sports are slowly making inroads into football’s home in South America.

Brazil is and always will be a soccer country, especially during a year in which it hosts the World Cup.

Nevertheless, the major US sports leagues for football, baseball and basketball are seeing unprecedented growth here as Brazilians become wealthier, more worldly and even frustrated with the shortcomings of their own national pastime.

The newfound success of the US' National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) in Brazil has been a surprise even to their own executives, although Rio de Janeiro's beaches have not been taken over by touch football just yet.

Baseball and American football remain niche sports in Brazil, with even basic rules a mystery to most observers here. Basketball has a longer tradition, but is still likely not even the second-most popular sport in the country. That is thought to be either volleyball or mixed-martial arts.Yet each of the US major sports leagues can point to important milestones in Brazil during the past two years.

The NBA became the first US league to open a permanent office in Brazil, in 2012. The NFL saw its average TV audience in Brazil double in 2013. MLB welcomed the big-league debut of its first Brazilian-born player in 2012 and at least two others are expected to make professional rosters this year.

"There has been an awakening of the Brazilian market and a lot of people are benefiting from it," said Chris Parsons, the NFL's senior vice-president for international affairs. He linked the rising interest to Brazil's economic boom in the last decade, which lifted some 35 million Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class.

That fueled an explosion in air travel, especially to the United States. The number of visas issued by US consulates in Brazil more than doubled between 2008 and 2012, to one million.

As a result, Parsons said US sports have become an "aspirational" status symbol — an expression of newfound affluence, especially among the youth who set the stylistic tone in cultural capitals like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. For example, Neymar, Brazil's biggest soccer star and a marketing icon for the rising middle class, wore a Michael Jordan baseball cap and a basketball jersey for Anderson Varejao, a Brazilian-born player for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers, in one of his first public appearances after signing with FC Barcelona last year.

"American sports are cool right now," said Arnon de Mello, the NBA's managing director for Brazil. "There has always been a synthesis of lifestyle, street culture, art and music in the NBA ... (and) that carries a real appeal these days in Brazil."

Unlike other parts of Latin America, especially in the Caribbean basin, Brazil never experienced a strong US military or commercial presence that brought American culture as well. So while baseball is ubiquitous in Venezuela and Cuba, for example, it is still very difficult to find it played in Brazil. Brazilians say they are especially drawn to the big-time feel of US sports, which are usually played to full stadiums with TV-friendly attractions, such as fireworks and cheerleaders.

By contrast, Brazil's domestic soccer league suffers from poor attendance as violence in the stands and dilapidated stadiums chase many fans away. Pacaembu Stadium in Sao Paulo, where two of the city's teams play most of their games, does not even have a fully functional video screen.

"You watch American football and, man, it's a show. You don't watch only for the game. That is what is missing in Brazilian soccer," said Mauricio Araujo, president of the Ipanema Crabs, an amateur beach football team in Rio.

Only about 50 people attended last Saturday as the Crabs played their first game of 2014 against the Copacabana Pirates. But a separate semi-professional league, where teams use helmets and pads and play on grass fields, has teams all over Brazil and attracts crowds of 5,000 people or more.

When it comes to basketball, the NBA wants to make sure it replicates the spectacle and showmanship enjoyed by US audiences. For a pre-season game it staged between the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards in Rio last October, the league made sure "every aspect of the game was the same."

That meant, for example, bringing in the same light show, dancer and team mascots that would be seen in, say, Chicago. The game - the first ever staged in South America - played to a stadium at nearly 98 percent of capacity. That was the highest percentage of seats sold for a pre-season game anywhere last year, according to the NBA.

Baseball, for its part, has been able to leverage a chapter of its history that is little-known outside Brazil. Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city, experienced a huge influx of Japanese immigration during the early 20th century. They brought baseball with them, although "Westerners" were generally excluded from playing, said Raylla Matusomori, a member of the Anhanguera Nikkey Club, which organises games.

"For 60 years it was very restricted," she said. "So baseball stagnated."

Even that has been changing though, underlining a shift that is slowly becoming apparent in Brazilian life.


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