* Soccer clubs seek to raise almost $500 mln with plan
* Corporate sponsors include Unilever, Ambev, Burger King
By Andrew Downie
SAO PAULO, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Brazil's most successful soccer teams have joined forces with corporate sponsors to launch a rewards program for season ticket holders that they hope will help transform its football league into one rivaling those of England, Italy and Spain.
Although Brazil is the only country to win the World Cup five times and is home to some of the greatest young talent in the world, its professional soccer league is often criticised as poorly run and many clubs are heavily indebted.
In a country with a population of nearly 200 million, only about 350,000 people currently pay for club membership cards - the local equivalent of season tickets - in exchange for match tickets, discounted merchandise and other privileges.
The soccer league hopes the new partnership with some of the biggest companies in Brazil will entice 3.5 million more football fans to sign up for membership cards, thereby raising 1 billion reais ($493 million) for participating clubs.
"This is a big step forward for Brazilian football," said Ronaldo, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid striker whose marketing agency is promoting the project. "Fans will save much more than they spend on their season ticket."
Brazil's biggest club is Corinthians, which had a turnover of around 103 million euros ($137.67 million) in 2011, according to a recent study by investment bank Itau BBA. That is less than the top 20 European clubs on Deloitte's annual Football Money League.
The new project, organised by brewer Ambev under the moniker "Movement for Better Football," has the backing of 15 of Brazil's biggest clubs - including World Club champion Corinthians, the Santos of Pele and Neymar, and Flamengo, the Rio club that claims to have more than 35 million fans throughout Brazil.
Major companies such as Unilever, Burger King , Sky Brasil - the Brazilian subsidiary of DirecTV - and PepsiCo are also sponsors.
The project encourages fans to join their club membership plans by offering discounts on products and services.
The discounts are passed on to the clubs, who said the money will help them build better facilities for fans and players, training centres to nurture young talent and perhaps most importantly, retain promising players who might otherwise go to Europe or the Middle East.
"We don't want to be just an exporter of raw materials," said Santos President Luis Alvaro de Oliveira Ribeiro. "I imagine it will allow us to hold on to other Neymars."
The participating companies also expect to benefit, though they did not say how much they could make from the deal.
"If we reach the goal of getting 3.5 million fans to sign up, that is 3.5 million fans who are choosing your company, said Iuri Miranda, Burger King's top executive in Brazil.
The initiative is the latest in a series of measures taken by Brazilian clubs to increase their income.
Clubs have become more professional over the last decade as sponsors seek to reach the more than 30 million people who have joined the consuming middle classes.
Investment has also flooded in to help prepare the country to host next year's World Cup.
Brazil is building or renovating 14 new stadiums and has promised to spend more than $13.5 billion on the tournament, not including policing, telecommunications and accommodation. ($1 = 2.03 Brazilian reais) ($1 = 0.7482 euros) (Editing by Todd Benson and Pritha Sarkar)