SAO PAULO (Reuters) - European teams have been making inroads into the U.S. with transfer deals, franchise partnerships and pre-season tours and now Brazilian clubs are seeking a slice of the action on and off the field.
Brazilians are investing in U.S. clubs and two Brazilian teams are in Florida this week for pre-season training and challenge matches against German sides.
Edu Gaspar, the former Arsenal player who is now Corinthians Director of Football, said: “For a long time now the club has been looking for an opportunity to promote itself in the U.S.”
“We have managed to find an important competition with clubs that are equally important and under conditions that suit us.”
Corinthians will this week play in the Florida Cup, a four-team tournament that includes Bayer Leverkusen, 1. Cologne and Rio de Janeiro’s Fluminense.
Corinthians play Cologne and Fluminense face Leverkusen in Orlando on Jan 15. Two days later Corinthians take on Leverkusen and Fluminense meet Cologne in Jacksonville.
The Brazilian clubs will use the games as warm-ups for the state championships which begin at the end of the month but more important than facing top European sides are the commercial possibilities.
The U.S. game is growing in stature, with New York City FC signing a franchise deal with part-owners Manchester City and top players like Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard signing for LA Galaxy, who he will join after the Premier league season.
Brazilian soccer, meanwhile, is in the doldrums on and off the pitch thanks to decades of mismanagement.
Almost all the top clubs are heavily in debt, with many owing players and managers months of back pay.
Even with 12 new stadiums built for the World Cup, the average first division crowd last year was 16,562, less than in Japan, Mexico, China –- and the United States.
Brazilian clubs can see U.S. socceris growing -- some Major League Soccer matches are now broadcast live in Brazil -– and they want to form closer ties with the country.
“This is one more opportunity for the club to establish a presence in the North American market, showing off its brand and its players,” Marcelo Teixeira, Fluminense’s executive director of soccer, said of the Florida tour.
U.S. clubs are waking up to the interest, with Orlando creating a Portuguese-language website and tourism packages for Brazilians.
“After Canadians, Brazil represents the biggest group of foreign visitors to Orlando,” Orlando City’s Brazilian president Flavio Augusta da Silva told Reuters in an email.
“Brazilians spend billions of dollars each year in Florida. And Orlando City will be an integral part of Brazil’s most beloved tourism route.”
Fluminense and Corinthians underlined the importance of marketing and TV coverage, with the Florida Cup games being broadcast live to 125 countries.
The Brazilian clubs also believe they can make money from their own fans by selling package deals to see the games as well as to watch training sessions and even fly with the team.
“In addition to what the club will receive for competing in the Florida Cup, we can also generate revenue from pitch-side advertising, TV rights and the sale of travel packages that include tickets to the game and for visits to the training center to watch training sessions,” said Alexandre Ferreira, Corinthians’ marketing manager.
Fluminense have a partnership with Gatorade, and Corinthians have deals with Fox Broadcasting to advertise The Simpsons and with Disney.
The other blossoming relationship comes in ownership. In addition to Silva at Orlando, three Brazilians own Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Orlando make their MLS debut in March, while the Strikers play in the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second level of U.S. soccer.
Former Brazil, Real Madrid and Inter Milan striker Ronaldo last month snapped up a piece of Fort Lauderdale and declared he was looking to the future.
“There are no doubts that the beautiful game is growing exponentially in the U.S., and I guarantee you that the NASL will play a key role in the rise of professional soccer here,” Ronaldo said.
Ronaldo played for Corinthians and the Sao Paulo side are using the Strikers’ training center as their U.S. base.
Reporting by Andrew Downie; editing by Ken Ferris