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RIO DE JANEIRO – Once the World Cup and its traveling circus leaves town, four gleaming stadiums that cost $1.6 billion and hosted massive crowds will echo noisily as their owners struggle to find a use for them or even partially fill them.
In the western Brazilian city of Cuiaba, Chilean and Colombian fans produced sellouts at the Arena Pantanal of 40,000 at the World Cup. The next big game at the $260 million stadium is July 20 — Paysandu vs. Cuiaba for the championship of Brazil's Serie C, or the third division. Officials are hoping for 4,000 fans.
Similar letdowns await at least three other new stadiums built for the World Cup: in the capital Brasilia, the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, and in Natal on the northeastern coast.
None of them has a big-time team, which means no permanent tenants to fill the stands, pay the bills or service the debt. Those venues cost about $1.6 billion, lavish spending that could have been aimed at rundown schools, shabby hospitals and poor public transportation, instead going to white-elephant football stadiums.
Government auditors say the bill for the Brasilia stadium will reach $900 million, the most expensive football venue ever built after Wembley Stadium in London.
Brazil did not require all 12 stadiums used at the World Cup. FIFA demanded a minimum of eight, but organizers decided it would build four more than were needed, mostly to satisfy local politicians.
"The only thing worse than spending a bunch of money on a stadium, is spending a bunch of money on a stadium that no one uses," said Victor Matheson, a sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. "No academic economist thinks that spending money on sports facilities is a particularly good investment."
All four stadiums bill themselves as multi-functional venues that can also play host to social and cultural events, and conventions. They have websites advertising themselves and looking for occupants.
Mauricio Guimaraes, who heads World Cup projects in Cuiaba, said the stadium might host agricultural fairs, business events and "could provide an incentive for the area's third- and fourth-division teams to seek promotion."
In Natal, the stadium will hold a Serie B match next week between America and Bragantino that is expected to draw about 3,000.
The situation is similar in Manaus and Brasilia.
Jose Maria Marin, the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation, said several times that finding uses after the World Cup would "all depend on the creativity, the imagination of the owners and the operators of these stadiums."
History suggests the four are ill-advised outlays. But even if they are, it's a tiny expense for a country with a $2.5 trillion economy. If the World Cup pays off in international goodwill, more tourism and boosts the re-election chances in October of President Dilma Rousseff, politicians — if not economists — will conclude it's been worth it.
Recent World Cups and Olympics have left expensive relics.
The $600 million Cape Town stadium from the 2010 World Cup has hosted just seven football matches in four years. It was the postcard image of South Africa's Cup, built on the seashore and under Cape Town's famous Table Mountain. Officials argue it will pay off in time.
The future is worse for a stadium built in the northern city of Polokwane, which has no major sports team and no way of generating revenue.
The symbol of Beijing's 2008 Olympics, the Bird's Nest's stadium, sits as what Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes recently called "a mausoleum to honor wasted public money."
"We don't see a lot of clear evidence from an economic point of view that countries that host these big events have these great legacy effects," Matheson said. "Maybe a stadium can hold a Beyonce, or a Mick Jagger concert. But there are not 50,000 people who will pack in for many bands."
Brazil tourist officials hope the World Cup exposure offers a boost. A recent World Bank study shows Brazil gets only 5.7 million foreign tourists annually. The Dominican Republic gets almost as many at 4.6 million. France receives 15 times more than Brazil — 83 million.
Robert Baade, an economist at Lake Forest College near Chicago, said he visited Brazil and spoke to sports ministry officials, warning about overspending on stadiums.
"There is the idea that somehow these stadiums are going to serve as a catalyst for other economic development," he said. "It just doesn't work that way. It's not like building a shopping mall where it's open from 9 to 9. There is a lot of dead time. You're talking about a stadium that might be occasionally used."
Baade said he visited Barcelona recently — seen as the most successful Olympics in generating urban renewal — and went to the part of the city where the Olympic stadium is located.
"There was virtually no activity up there," he said. "And Barcelona is seen as a big success."
Mega-events have been awarded recently to the so-called BRICS — an acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — countries with fast-growing economies that are marketing themselves using the Olympics or World Cup.
"They want their place on the global stage," Baade said.
Brazil spent about $4 billion — 80 percent of it public money — on 12 new or renovated stadiums for the World Cup, which replaced old, run-down stadiums. Total World Cup spending was about $11.5 billion.
New stadiums will make matches safer, but they are also driving up ticket prices and shutting out the working class and poor who have traditionally supported the game.
"Natal and other northern cities have had a history of violence associated with football matches," said Luis Eduardo Pereira, a spokesman for the Natal stadium. "We hope that the more secure arena will encourage families to come back to football."
Brazil's top league draws fewer fans than the MLS in the United States, or China's up-start Super League.
"We need to find a way to get the poor and working class into the stadiums," Brazil Sports Minister Aldo Rebelo said at the World Cup. "You cannot take the democratic character out of the stands. Such is the soul of football."
A recent study showed that average ticket prices at Rio's Maracana stadium, the site of the World Cup final, had increased about 30 times over the last nine years.
Wolfgang Maenning, a sports economist at the University of Hamburg, defended building the new stadiums, though he said FIFA and the IOC should allow smaller, even temporary venues. It would reduce costs, and for television purposes doesn't really matter.
"If you build a new airport, you will not build it with a capacity that just fits what you have right now," he said. "But you will build thinking of 30 years of potential growth. Of course the stadiums are too big right now."
Maenning argues one way to measure success of the World Cup, Olympics and sports infrastructure is to see "if it increases happiness."
He said both events are similar to giving a big party for your friends; you hope your guests enjoy themselves, and the host picks up all the bills.
"Brazilians are experiencing that it's nice to have the all international teams here," Maenning said. "It makes people feel better to be at the center of media attention worldwide."
Maenning said Germany's 2006 World Cup made people feel better. Brazil might follow suit, although a humiliating 7-1 loss to Germany in the semifinals may sour the mood.
"It is hard to show direct economic benefit for this event, but the goal should be making people happy," he said. "I cannot say about the cost. But we have to accept that the World Cup is a very good instrument to make people happy."
Associated Press writer Ana Santos in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.
Stephen Wade on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP