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World Cup host Brazil struggles to fill stadiums

By Andrew Downie

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilians like to say theirs is the country of soccer and it certainly has a strong claim for the titles of the world's greatest player, greatest team and even the greatest stadium.

In the nation that will host the 2014 World Cup, however, fewer people go to see professional soccer matches than in China or the United States.

With attendances falling further this year, Brazilian clubs are using different strategies to try to fill their grounds but they are hampered by antiquated stadiums, a lack of respect for fans, television stations that show every game live and insufficient policing and security.

In the home of Pele, the legendary team that won the 1970 World Cup and Rio de Janeiro's giant Maracana stadium, just about everyone has a team and an opinion. But few actually go to support their side.

"Lots of people confuse the phenomenon of the World Cup in Brazil with a true love of the game," said Juca Kfouri, one of Brazil's best-known sports writers. "Brazil is not a country where people love football. It is a country where people love to party around the World Cup."

That assertion got factual backing from two recent reports on attendances.

One, by the Stochos consultancy, showed the average crowd at Brazilian first division matches has fallen eight percent this season to less than 13,000.

While big clubs such as Sao Paulo and Corinthians regularly pull in crowds of more than 30,000 people, the average attendance is below 10,000 at more than half of Brazil's first division clubs.

Santos, home to top striker Neymar, has an average home gate of 7,788 this season. The average at Portuguesa, another Sao Paulo club, is 4,162. Just 449 people watched Atletico-GO play Sport last month.

A second study put Brazil 13th on a world table of attendances for 2011. An average of 14,987 fans attended first division matches, according to the study by Pluri, a Brazilian sports consultancy, which used a slightly different methodology to Stochos.

Germany's Bundesliga led the table with 45,083 fans, followed by England, Spain and Mexico.

Brazil lagged behind all the big European nations, as well as the United States, which was in sixth place. It also came in behind China in 10th and Japan, which was one place above it. Average crowds at Brazilian Serie A matches are lower even than those in the German and English second divisions.

Brazilian clubs are trying creative solutions to remedy the situation.

In Recife, fans of the city's three big teams get tickets in return for requesting invoices for purchases in stores. The initiative is designed to raise tax revenues by ensuring businesses record transactions.

MEMBERSHIP SCHEMES

Under the program, first division teams Sport and Nautico get 8,000 tickets for each home game paid for by the state government. The 20,000 tickets given to third division Santa Cruz have helped it to become one of the best-supported clubs in the country.

"It helps you guarantee a critical mass of people in the stadium," said Sport's president Gustavo Dubeux. "Without it our crowds would be 25 percent less than they are. It's very important to us."

Although season tickets are still little known in Brazil, most clubs now have membership schemes that offer priority booking and discounted tickets for home games. With more than 110,000 fans signed up, Internacional's scheme has more members than Real Madrid, and Corinthians have almost as many.

Other clubs have selectively reduced entry fees. Ticket prices have increased exponentially over the last decade, pricing out many fans.

The average ticket price in the first division this season was 24 reais ($12), according to Stochos. Top clubs such as Corinthians charge 180 reais ($90) for the best tickets. Ten years ago, fans could still go to a local derby at Maracana stadium for little more than a dollar.

The campaigns have had an effect, suggesting fans are put off by the high cost of entry. When Sao Paulo reduced tickets for one part of the stands from 60 to 20 reais, crowds in the sector went to around 7,000 from 300.

Another major factor is security and comfort. Although tens of millions of Brazilians have entered the middle class in the past decade, many of them still cannot afford upwards of 100 reais a week to take a family to the stadium.

They also are reluctant to attend matches in run-down arenas and occasional violence among rival fans, especially at big matches, is a big concern.

That has been a boon for the pay-per-view (PPV) sector. A monthly PPV package costs 60 reais and sales had increased 70 percent in two years, said Alessandro Maluf, product manager with NET, the cable firm that sells packages.

"Many people are scared to take their family to stadiums and they see pay-per-view as a safer way to see their team," Maluf said. "It is not pay-per-view that stops Brazil being number one on that table, that has more to do with security, how you are treated, infrastructure."

Experts believe the construction of new arenas for the World Cup will encourage people to turn out for games both during and after the tournament. Some 14 new arenas are scheduled to be opened by 2014 and with them will come a new level of security and comfort.

But until then, Brazilian teams will struggle to make football as appealing as a trip to the cinema, the beach or the shopping mall, said Cesar Gualdani, director of Stochos.

"Brazil is the country of football because football is impregnated in our culture and history," Gualdani said. "But when it comes to fans, that's a title it is fighting for with lots of other countries."

(Editing by Clare Fallon, Kieran Murray and Paul Simao)

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