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SAO PAULO – Brazilians are starting to pay attention to a different type of football — the one played with the hands.
American football — once the sport nobody could understand — is quickly gaining space in the land of soccer, attracting a growing number of fans and participants.
Brazil already has two well-established semi-professional leagues in place, and television ratings for the NFL are increasing rapidly.
Some of the country's most traditional soccer clubs have created their own American football teams, with one of them boasting the fact it has more Facebook fans than some NFL teams. And Nike is selling NFL jerseys here for the first time, and saying the company expects interest to grow.
One former NFL player working as a coach in the country is excited with the sport's potential, saying it may not be long before American football becomes one of the nation's most popular sports behind soccer.
"American football is just pregnant right now in Brazil, getting ready to give birth to something great," former New York Jets tight end Johnny Mitchell told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
Brazil even has a national team playing competitively, and the level of talent is improving.
Games are being played on the famous Rio de Janeiro beaches, sharing sand space with soccer and foot-volley, as well as in other parks and fields across the country. Some traditional soccer stadiums are also hosting American football games.
The sport is not likely to ever seriously challenge the popularity of soccer, but it's starting to leave its mark. Some fans say they are not watching as much soccer as they did before getting to know American football.
"I decided to cancel my pay-per-view package for the Brazilian league and used that money on high-speed internet to make it easier to follow the NFL," said Priscila Santos, a 30-year-old Brazilian who got hooked on the sport through a friend who already liked the NFL. "I realized that the sport is so much more organized than soccer is here. I fell in love with it immediately and now it's my No. 1 sport."
Not long ago, it was hard to find many people who knew much about American football in Brazil. The sport was virtually exclusive to foreigners who lived in the country and Brazilians who used to live abroad. Brazilians often said the rules were too difficult and criticized that it was too violent.
But with the growth of cable television, more people started to have access to the sport. ESPN began broadcasting NFL games in Brazil in the early 1990s, and in the last few years ratings started to reach significant levels.
The channel is broadcasting up to six games each week and viewership last season grew 29 percent. ESPN had cable TV's top rating the day of this year's Super Bowl, and in 2013 it led all sports channels watched by men 18-24 when NFL games were shown.
The league is also available on the broadcast channel Esporte Interativo, which said games reached 23.8 million people in Brazil last season, with an average of almost 900,000 per game.
"We are still trying to help the viewer understand some of the rules of the sport, but we are already noticing during this third season that there is a fan base which is already very familiar and very engaged with the NFL," said Fabio Medeiros, the channel's content director, adding that during this year's Super Bowl its hashtag #NFLnoEI was among Twitter's trending topics worldwide.
Brazilians aren't just watching American football. They are playing it too.
There are more than 120 American football teams in the country, and new ones are being created every year, according to the Brazilian Confederation of American Football, which was established in 2012 to help develop the sport. It says there are more than 4,800 active players in Brazil, not counting those with flag-football teams and youth and women's categories. Although there are many foreigners playing in local teams, the vast majority of players are Brazilians.
"There is no doubt the sport is growing rapidly," said Daniel Stoler, the Brazilian confederation's director of international affairs. "We notice that people are becoming a lot more interested in the sport, they are coming to us."
The local leagues have been growing and some of the games are broadcast on local TV.
Mitchell, who played in the NFL in the 1990s, was hired to coach the Maringa Pyros this season, a year after leading the Coritiba Crocodiles to the title of the IV Brasil Bowl. His arrival made headlines in local newspapers on sports pages usually filled with soccer stories.
"The next step for American football in Brazil is to find someone who sees the business opportunities of the sport here, then it will really take off," he said.
Mitchell says there is a good foundation in place and a few of the local players already have enough talent to be playing in the Canadian Football League or the Arena Football League.
"I think that in seven to 10 years you could have talent on the level of the NFL," he said. "The Brazilians have size, they just don't have the technical support right now. What is needed is someone who can buy out all the leagues and put a commissioner in place and really teach these kids around Brazil. We are talking about 200 million people in this country."
Another former NFL player taking a chance in Brazil this season is Nic Harris, a linebacker who played for the Buffalo Bills in 2009 and the Carolina Panthers in 2010. He came to play for the Vila Velha Tritoes, which won one of the local leagues in 2010 in a final played in one of Brazil's most traditional soccer venues, Santos' Vila Belmiro Stadium.
Made famous by Pele in the 1960s, Santos is among the top Brazilian soccer clubs taking advantage of the growth of American football. Others include popular sides Flamengo, Corinthians and Vasco da Gama, all of which have been participating in local leagues. In 2011, the Fluminense Imperadores won a title in front of a crowd of 7,000 at Coritiba's Couto Pereira Stadium.
The Corinthians Steamrollers has more than 1.2 million Facebook fans, more than eight NFL teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals and Buffalo Bills.
The NFL is starting to notice.
"We've never looked specifically, but Brazil should be a huge opportunity for us. Great sports country, fantastic infrastructure, getting better by the year at the moment with all sporting events," said Mark Waller, NFL's executive vice president of international. "I think it would be extraordinary for us if (we) were able to look at something there."
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner contributed to this report from New York.
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