Prices soaring and attendances plummeting: The great soap opera of Brazilian football
Last Sunday, while the eyes of Brazilian football fans were glued to the top of the table clash between Atlético Mineiro and Fluminense, the rest of the country spent the afternoon lying down in a darkened room, a damp flannel placed upon their sweaty collective brow. For true emotional catharsis for millions of Brazilians had come the previous Friday night with the final episode of the novela, or soap opera, Avenida Brasil.
The cultural, and popular, significance of Brazil´s soaps cannot be understated. Almost 73 per cent of Brazilian televisions were tuned to the dramatic conclusion of the saga of Nina, Carminha and the neighbourhood football team, Divino FC, and even president Dilma Rousseff rescheduled a rally amid fears of a low turnout.
What is interesting about Avenida Brasil is that, while still more Kensington High Street than Ken Loach, the drama was concerned with the lives of the residents of a typical lower middle class neighbourhood in São Paulo. Traditionally, Brazilian soaps have focused on the gilded lives of wealthy (and often curiously blonde and blue-eyed) families living in luxury apartments in Leblon or Ipanema – representative of only the tiniest percentage of the population. As the writer Hélio Santos once said, “if you watch Brazilian TV with the sound off, you might think you’re in Switzerland”.
But Avenida Brasil represents the growing confidence and visibility of “Class C” of Brazilian society, a group which has grown enormously in recent years, thanks to a burgeoning economy and increased minimum wage, and now includes 53 per cent of the population, or around 103 million people. And the popularity of the soap can perhaps teach Brazilian football a thing or two.
Away from the gaudy headlines of a booming local game, awash in TV money, replete with stars such as Neymar, Luís Fabiano and Clarence Seedorf, and with new World Cup stadiums springing up like daisies, Brazilian football is in crisis. Following last weekend’s games, the average Serie A attendance is a paltry 12,554. Three of the four Rio clubs boast average gates of 10,000 or less, Santos are often watched by around 5,000, particularly when Neymar isn’t playing, and the recent game between Atlético Goianiense and Sport attracted a grand total of 449 paying customers.
At the same time, prices have soared. Between 2005 and 2011, the price of the average ticket climbed 125%, and last year there was a further increase of 14%. While tickets themselves are not outrageously expensive (the average price is around R$24, not much more than the cost of a weekend trip to the cinema in most big city shopping malls), they’re costly enough to put them out of the reach of the game’s traditional core following – Classes C and D.
While good old fashioned avarice is at the root of the problem (in 2008 mid-table Goiás, playing São Paulo in a game that could have clinched the title for the visitors, attempted to raise prices from R$40 to R$400), it may also be that Brazilian football clubs are dreaming of a Premier League style (upper) middle class revolution. Back to Goiás again – in 2011, justifying the fact that the cheapest tickets to watch the Brazil x Holland in the Serra Dourada would cost R$150, or 30 per cent of the monthly minimum wage, a local MP sniffed that “we´re trying to attract a better class of supporter.”
There is only one snag – the average well-heeled Brazilian is as likely to cheer for Argentina in a World Cup final as he is likely to attend a football match. The much trumpeted TV deal (actually deals, given that each club negotiated their own) allows pay-per-view access to every game in the Brasileirão from the comfort of an armchair or bar stool. Given awkward kick-off times (10pm on a Wednesday night or 9pm on a Saturday are common), creaky public transport systems, often chaotic traffic, poor stadium conditions, and the (real or imagined) threat of crowd violence, João or Maria the lawyer or doctor will choose that armchair or bar stool every time.
Which leaves the task of actually going to the game in the hands of Brazil’s working classes, who perhaps with fewer leisure options available, don’t mind putting up with a few hardships to watch their team. Except Brazilian clubs are doing their level best to price such fans out of the game. A trip to a big game with son or daughter might cost around R$100 – or one sixth of the monthly minimum wage.
Crowds have increased in recent weeks as the Serie A title race reaches a climax (until around 10 years ago Brazilian titles were traditionally decided by play-off games, meaning the early weeks of the league season are still viewed with a certain suspicion). And many clubs, tired of playing in front of empty stands and desperate for support in the fight against relegation or chase for the title, have abandoned their middle-class fantasy and introduced cheap ticket promotions. In most cases it’s working – Fluminense, with an average crowd of 10,000, are expecting a 34,000 sell-out for tonight’s home game with Coritiba.
As the BBC journalist Tim Vickery astutely pointed out recently, English football, surfing a wave of sell-out crowds, has been able to push up ticket prices from a position of strength. Brazilian football is not in such a position yet. And until it is, fans will prefer to watch their teams on TV. After the novela, of course.Tagged in: 2014 World Cup, Brazil, football, neymar
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