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Jai-Alai 'on Life Support:' How a Hot Sport Went Cold

10 Aug, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

In its heyday, Jai-alai was like roller disco: impenetrable to those who looked in from the outside and hot and happening for those who played. Coincidentally, the last time it was also wildly popular was when roller disco was too, meaning the late 1970s and early 80s. These days, however, the sport is struggling to find players and to hold onto its facilities.

So how did the sport flat-line, particularly in Florida where a strong Hispanic population kept it booming for so long? Piecing together the puzzle is a bit like following the cold case files in a police station: lots of leads but few that provide definitive answers.

Jai-alai, played in a fronton (which amounts to a high, three-sided 176-foot-long racquetball court), is still a popular sport in the Philippines and in Latin America. In the U.S., it’s a game dominated by players from Spain, France, Cuba and Mexico.  Its original popularity stateside was boosted by the fact that it was a basis for pari-mutuel betting. And back in the roller disco era, it was hard to get past the velvet rope and into the spectator gallery, much less onto the court.

Tournaments, national championships and even international competitions came to the U.S., long before the days of economic impact calculators and sports commissions. Florida, Texas, Nevada, even Connecticut welcomed the competitive events because of their ancillary benefits. Players brought their families and friends, who filled the stands, bought food and drink, stayed in town and made it a vacation.

There were, an article in SB Nation notes, frontons up and down the Eastern seaboard. “Presidents watched jai-alai with their wives. Ernest Hemingway bragged about getting to hang out with jai-alai players. In fact, during World War II he concocted a scheme in which jai-alai players would somehow lob grenades down the open hatches of unsuspecting German U-boats. Now, the sport seems like a relic, a vision into the past. It’s vestigial, like an appendix.”

So what happened? A recent short film on ESPN, entitled (no kidding) “What the Hell Happened to Jai-Alai?,” chronicles the sport’s rise and fall in America. But even the film can’t provide all the answers.

According to an article in The Miami Herald, the frontons in Miami and Dania have struggled to put fans in the seats. Numbers have decreased over the decades and developers, seeing their chance, are taking the land. Although Miami’s fronton looks much like it did 20 years ago, the redesign of Dania cut seating to just a few hundred as its large fronton is now a sparkling new casino floor, welcoming bettors to much more lucrative ventures.

The formula behind jai-alai’s downward trajectory includes a number of factors. A players’ strike, which took place in the 1980s and lasted more than three years, is often referred to as the first tip of the domino. In the interim, pro sports teams moved in. The Heat, Marlins and Panthers captured young people’s attention and in a mirror effect, local rec programs for children to enroll in basketball, football and basketball profited. Soccer was also growing and would continue to do so. The betting angle, meanwhile, was hurt when lottery scratch-off games were introduced in 1988 and casinos rose throughout southern Florida, along with “cruises to nowhere,” so that bettors could travel to international waters to place their wagers. There were limitless opportunities for gambling for older folks and a lot of distractions for the younger group. Few children took up jai-alai and a decreasing number of adults bet on it.

In other words, it was a perfect storm, and jai-alai was all but washed away.

Leon Shepard, a current jai-alai player and an activist for the sport in Florida, told SB Nation in a recent article that he wanted to save the game. His ideas include bringing in basketball players and baseball players to make publicized appearances in the offseason, and making efforts to reach out to the South Florida sports community more. Sports commissions and CVBs would be a likely outlet for him.

“This sport doesn’t have to die off in America,” Shepard noted. “I know we’ll probably never get back to the crowds we had.” He’d like to get the 500 people (which the frontons are lucky to see) “up to 3,000, or 2,000, or even 1,000.”

Others aren’t quite so optimistic. They don’t see the economy of sports business as something that touches jai-alai, and they think the era is over. For them, it is only a matter of time until casinos are able to separate their pari-mutuels from their casinos and gaming licenses, making the game irrelevant. Then, they say, the developers will move in.

Jai-alai legend Joey Cornblit is one of those who loves the game but doesn’t see a way forward.

“Jai-alai, right now, is on life support,” Cornblit told The Miami Herald. “They’re getting ready to pull the plug.”

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