These days, thousands of Brazilians are cocking a snook at the world’s great capitals and booking trips not to London, New York or Paris, but to Orlando or Miami. And it is not only holiday makers, wealthy exiles unhappy at the political and economic state of things back home, or property investors that are tempted by the region’s balmy climes and sub-tropical vibe. Brazilians are staking a claim in Florida’s soccer teams – and it cannot be long until they begin to make similar moves in the rest of the country.
Not that it is merely beaches and mojitos which have drawn the likes of entrepreneur Flávio Augusto da Silva, who bought Orlando Soccer City (for whom Kaká will soon make his debut) in 2013, or Ronaldo, who has bought a stake in Fort Lauderdale Strikers, to the region. There are sound business reasons behind the moves – that both pull potential investors towards soccer in the USA, and push them away from the game in Brazil.
The first is that, while Brazilians may scoff at the USA’s lack of tradition in the sport and the stoic, if unlovely (at least compared to the fading, if not entirely obsolete, local myth of o jogo bonito) progress of the national team through the 2014 World Cup, there is no doubt that the MLS (and to a lesser extent, the NASL) is seen as a growing, potentially lucrative business – if not now, then certainly in the future.
“It’s not a profitable business yet. Most MLS teams lose money…it’s about wanting to grow the league in an organic form,” said Stefano Hawilla, a director of the Brazil based Traffic group, a majority shareholder in the NASL.
The growth in the popularity of the game in the US has certainly caught Brazilian attention. Perhaps it is because of the average MLS attendance of just under 20,000 (compared to slightly over 16,500 in the Brazilian Serie A), or the 108,000 crowd that watched a friendly between Manchester United and Real Madrid in Michigan in August, or the fact that more USA fans bought tickets for last summer’s World Cup than any other visiting nation. Whatever the reason, Brazilians are beginning to look at Tio Sam’s adoption of the game with no little curiosity – and perhaps even some concern.
Part of that is due to the state of the game in their own country. Even if it was possible to “buy” a club like Flamengo or Corinthians (it is not, as teams are effectively societies, with presidential elections every few years) only a very brave or a very foolish man would do so in Brazil. If things on the pitch are in a grim state – as though Brazil’s World Cup humiliation against Germany was not enough, not one of the nation’s club sides could make it past the quarter-finals of last year’s Copa Libertadores – then the situation off it is even more serious.
Many Brazilian clubs are mired in enormous public and private debt (the unpaid tax bill of the twelve biggest teams in the country is estimated at around U$572 million) and frequently struggle to pay player salaries on time– some senior players at one of the country’s most storied clubs, Santos, recently rescinded their contracts after the team repeatedly failed to pay them.
Unfortunately, there seems little hope of change in the near future. The game’s governing body, the CBF, is a shadowy old school, elderly men's club of influence (such as recently departed president Jose Maria Marin) who would most likely break out in a rash upon hearing the word “modernize”. Meanwhile the clubs themselves seem more concerned with their own petty rivalries than with taking the game forward.
While the new World Cup arenas have lent a veneer of sophistication to the Brasileirão, violence continues to be a major problem – a 16-year-old fan was shot and killed at a game in the south of the country last weekend.
While this may not be the type of product to attract investors in Brazil, it certainly makes the game in the USA look very appealing indeed.
Along with a massive potential fan base, expanding TV revenues and the prospect of enormous commercial opportunities, the ability of the MLS to attract aging, if still acclaimed, star players is another advantage the US has over Brazil. The global cultural dominance of the country itself plays a part in that – while it is no great surprise to see that the likes of David Beckham, Thierry Henry, or Frank Lampard willing to relocate to New York or Los Angeles, it is fair to say that the same players would be less enthusiastic about a move to Brazil (Clarence Seedorf, whose wife is Brazilian and who speaks Portuguese, is the only major player from outside South America to have played in the Brasileirão in recent years).
Brazil’s cultural links with Florida are longstanding – Disney World is the destination of choice for the school trips of well-off teens, more tourists from Brazil visit that popular Florida tourist destination region than from any other country, and with the political and economic mood back home worsening, more and more wealthy Brazilians are heading to the area.
“We have everything here that we need: movies, we have the Brazilian channels, the Brazilian supermarkets, you can buy piranha (a cut of beef),” Marco Fonseca, a real estate broker from Rio de Janeiro, told the Wall Street Journal. “Miami is the biggest Brazilian city outside of Brazil right now.” (http://www.wsj.com/articles/rich-brazilians-wary-of-government-look-abroad-1423182280)
With the continued growth of MLS, it is likely that ever increasing numbers of another type of Brazilian – those wishing to invest in soccer – will also choose Florida and the rest of the USA over their own country. And it will not be a good steak that is drawing them north.