- Associated Press - Friday, February 6, 2015

SAO PAULO (AP) - Teams with rabid fan bases qualify through local championships. They are divided into groups of four, and the best advance to the knockout stage. Thousands go to the games, millions watch on television, and interest is still soaring.

The draw for the quarterfinals is broadcast live on TV. The champion gets to raise a trophy with “big ears.”

Champions League?

Try the Lampions League.

Played in Brazil’s northeast, which is populated by nearly 55 million, almost as many as Chile and Argentina combined, the Lampions League has grown into the country’s most successful regional soccer championship.

It has some of the highest TV ratings, and the best attendance average. Last year’s final drew more than 60,000 to the Arena Castelao in Fortaleza, the biggest football crowd in Brazil away from the World Cup. It even eclipsed the four World Cup matches in Fortaleza, including one featuring Brazil.

The league is officially known as the Copa do Nordeste (Northeast Cup), but it didn’t take long before fans began calling it the Lampions League, in reference to Lampiao, a well-known local folk hero from the 1920s who remains symbolic of the region. Many northeasterns - nordestinos - go to games wearing “Lampions League” shirts and hats.

It’s no coincidence the Lampions League format, marketing, and trophy are modeled on Europe’s Champions League. Even the Champions League anthem has been adapted to the buoyant music of a region known for its hot weather, beautiful beaches, and upbeat people.

The network broadcasting the Copa do Nordeste in Brazil, Esporte Interativo, also recently acquired exclusive rights for the Champions League in the country.

“We are using one tournament to help promote the other,” Esporte Interativo president Edgar Diniz says. “We always admired and were inspired by how the Champions League was able to build its brand, so we decided to adopt some of the same practices.”

The copa has grown so much that Brazil’s most popular club, Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, recently reached out to organizers for an invite. Goias, a first-division club in the central region, has also considered joining the copa.

Among the traditional teams in the tournament are Bahia, Vitoria, Nautico, Sport, Ceara and Fortaleza, all with great recognition across Brazil. The intense rivalry between them adds flavor, as does the enthusiasm of the local fans, known as the most passionate and devoted in the country.

“Everybody is recognizing that this is one of the best tournaments in Brazil right now,” says Alexi Portela, the president of the league that organizes the copa. “The teams here prefer to play in the Copa do Nordeste than in the Brazilian Cup. The financial impact to these clubs has been great. This tournament has really become significant to every one of these clubs.”

Like other regional tournaments, the copa fills the early months before the Brazilian league starts in May and goes through December. Local idols such as Chicao, Magrao and Durval hope to also earn their teams a berth in the Copa Sudamericana.

The Copa do Nordeste was first played in 2001, but was canceled after two seasons for political reasons. It returned with the new format in 2013.

“We grew (in attendance) 22 percent last year, and we expect to grow 30 percent this year,” Portela says. “There is no doubt we are talking about the fastest-growing competition in Brazil today.”

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