The last time most Americans probably thought of jai-alai was when watching Miami Vice: during its opening credits, a jai alai player slings a ball toward a large green wall. Like the colors and vibe from that 1980’s show, jai alai has dwindled to near-extinction, as detailed in a documentary released earlier this month.
That ESPN 30 for 30 film, titled “What the Hell Happened to Jai-Alai” was recently released via ESPN.com/30for30. Parts of the 15-minute piece also aired during SportsCenter.
“Jai-alai right now is sitting on life support,” former top player Joey Cornblit says in the film. “And they’re getting ready to pull the plug.”
Image: Robyn Sortal
The filmmakers discuss the glory days of jai-alai, a game similar to racquetball, with a lineage linked to the Basque region of Spain. They note that at one time there were more than 20 frontons across the United States. Now there are just two, in Miami and Dania Beach, Florida.
It’s a story that those who follow the maturation and decline of traditional gambling could use as a case study. This story involves bad business decisions, an inability to cope with competition, and an overall air of nostalgia.
Jai-alai flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, when crowds of 10,000 or so would gather at frontons, especially in South Florida and Connecticut. Back then, Sports Illustrated wrote a feature story about the game. In a feature for ABC’s “Good Morning, America,” Bruce Jenner reported from on-location, praising the dominance of Cornblit.
“My goal was to get jai-alai all over the country,” Cornblit told the 30 for 30 filmmakers.
Of course, gambling propelled jai-alai from a spectator sport into a more interactive activity. One downside was that the players weren’t addressed by their real names, only by cries like “Drop it, Four!” from gamblers rooting for a mistake so that their wagers would stay alive.
Florida added competition for the gambling aspects of the game by starting a lottery in 1988. Then, between 1988 and 1991, the top players, who had a small following among gamblers, disappeared from the game from during a strike between labor and management over wages and forming a union. Replacement players stepped in, while the striking players stood outside berating the patrons who came to watch the games.
“The problem is you alienate the fans and they find other things to do,” Cornblit said.
That was particularly true in South Florida. The NBA, MLB, and NHL all came to town about then (the Heat in 1988, the Marlins in 1991, and the Panthers in 1993). In 2004 the Seminole Tribe of Florida began offering slots; two years later racetrack casinos came to Florida.
Image: Robyn Sortal
Today, fewer than 100 people come to watch jai-alai, even on the busiest days. The games are conducted only because state requires such pari-mutuel activity to maintain a slot license. The games are a big money-loser: there isn’t enough gambling activity to cover each fronton’s roster of 36 players, each earning $40,000 and up.
Casinos have tried to cut jai-alai costs, something that only creates more disinterest. The Dania Beach fronton is partially owned by the same men who own the Naples Dog Track and Magic City Casino (formerly Flagler Dog Track). Rather than pay for three pari-mutuel simulcast channels, they broadcast their events on just one, staggering the action across the day. That means Dania usually runs its programs at 4 p.m. and 10 p.m., disappointing casino visitors on weekend prime time who might want to enjoy some jai-alai, but see only an empty court.
That said, Dania executives promised to feature jai-alai when the casino re-opened last January after being closed more than a year for remodeling. Action is sometimes shown on the TV screens overlooking the casino, and the players have a four-year contract, meaning that if the state ever did approve decoupling (allowing racinos to operate without pari-mutuels) the players wouldn’t be ditched without a fight.
“We’re trying to move the needle forward,” said Dania player manager Benny Bueno, a top player in 1981-2005. “We got here through a long, painstaking process. We didn’t just wake up one morning and say ‘Oh my goodness this is falling apart.’ It took years and years to get here. My opinion is that it’s going to take some effort for quite a bit of time to get it back to a respectable level.”
In Miami, though, spokesman Rene Guim showed the 30 for 30 filmmakers a $155 million casino improvement, and how its new décor compares to the fronton’s pre-millennium look.
“It would be very, very difficult to maintain jai-alai without this,” Guim said, waving his hand across the slot floor.