(This article originally appeared at EOG in late 2011)
Were it not for the opening credits of ‘Miami Vice’ or a hilarious clip in the Dos Equis ‘Most Interesting Man In the World’ ad campaign no one under the age of 35 would have a clue what jai alai is. At its peak in the the 1970’s, jai alai players competed year round in Florida in front of tens of thousands of spectators a night. The Miami Jai Alai Fronton was long considered the ‘Yankee Stadium’ of the sport and in late 1975 hosted a record crowd of 15,502 fans. For awhile the sport even had a cult following in Connecticut and Las Vegas. Jai Alai’s popularity began to decline in the 1980’s as more gambling options became available and today finds itself struggling to survive.
Jai Alai is a game of Basque origin with rules similar to racquetball. In the modern version of the game, eight teams of two players compete simultaneously in a round robin format with the team that wins a point staying on the court and the losing team heading to the back of the line to await another turn. The real catalyst for the sport’s popularity was parimutuel wagering and in an era when the only legal gambling options available in Florida were horse racing and dog racing it became hugely popular and its top players treated—and paid–like rock stars. The betting terms associated with jai alai are readily familiar to any horse racing enthusiast, with ‘win’, ‘place’ and ‘show’ betting along with exotic wagers like quinellas, exactas and perfectas.
The fast paced action combined with the wagering component made jai alai one of the hot tickets in Florida, particularly in the Miami area. During the disco era, many would be Tony Maneros considered it the perfect way to start the social activities for the evening and the frontons were filled with cigar smoking and cocktail drinking wise guys. Jai alai’s popularity slumped in the 1980’s and now the sport survives only because of state government’s efforts to prop it up with other forms of gaming.
Revenue desperate states that view gambling as a ‘cash cow’ are nothing new, and in the mid 1970’s Connecticut added not only a state lottery but parimutual wagering including off track betting, horse and dog racing—and jai alai. By 1977 there were jai alai frontons in Hartford, Bridgeport and Milford. The Milford fronton was immediately successful, serving over a million customers and taking over $70 million in wagers in its first year of operation. The sport had a decent run in Connecticut but eventually bit the dust. The facilities in Bridgeport and Hartford closed in 1995, with the Milford fronton managing to stay afloat until 2001.
Jai Alai established a Western outpost in Nevada in the mid 1970’s as well The old MGM Grand (located where Bally’s is today) opened the first fronton in the ‘Silver State’ in 1974 and added a facility at the MGM Reno in 1978. The Reno opening actually made sense on a practical level, since Northern Nevada has a large Basque population. That didn’t help the MGM Reno fronton and almost as quickly as Kirk Kirkorian became fascinated with the game he cooled on it when it didn’t deliver much in terms of revenue. The MGM Reno fronton was closed in 1980, with the Las Vegas location suffering the same fate after the infamous November fire.
In many ways, the fate of the jai alai industry is analogous to that of horse racing. When things were going well, the industry thought that the huge stream of revenue would continue forever. As a result, they did very little to market the sport or its wagering component. They failed to pursue even the most obvious publicity and revenue vehicles—sponsorship, television coverage, etc. Furthermore, they didn’t invest in their infrastructure and allowed the frontons themselves to decline when the smart play would have been to keep them ‘state of the art’.
At the same time the jai alai industry was doing little to promote and grow their sport, what would become a flood of competing options for gambling enthusiasts were starting to appear. Indian gaming was born in Florida in the late 1970’s when the Seminole nation opened a bingo hall, and that would eventually facilitate a spread of gambling options in many areas of the country. Jai alai in both Connecticut and Florida suffered a painful blow due to a labor dispute in the 1980’s but the coup de grace up north was the opening of the Foxwoods Casino in 1992 and the Mohegan Sun several years later. By the end of the decade two of the three jai alai frontons in Connecticut and 5 in Florida would close their doors.
In another parallel to horse racing, the sport survives in Florida only because of legislation that allows it to be subsidized by other forms of gambling. Wagering on parimutual events of all types in Florida has declined over 50% in the past 20 years. Poker, by contrast, is a growth industry and it’s only due to their poker room that the Dania Jai Alai Fronton manages to survive. Poker revenues in Florida have grown from $18.5 million to $105 million in the past decade. Dania was purchased by Boyd Gaming in 2007 and renovations that included a slots casino were planned, but the economic downturn put an end to that and the property was sold at a loss earlier this year. Even with slots, there’s no guarantee that Dania will be able to compete successfully against the Seminole Hard Rock Casino just six miles away. An even more daunting challenger could be waiting in the wings as Asian gaming giant Genting Malaysia is hoping to lobby Sunshine State and local lawmakers to allow them to build a $2.5 billion destination resort/casino on Biscayne Bay. Even Las Vegas icon Steve Wynn has been nosing around the South Florida area looking for similar opportunities.
Things are looking up for the Miami Jai Alai Fronton due to a $81 million cash infusion by a group of ‘unidentified investors’. This will allow the facility to pay down debt and construct a slots casino, upgrade the facility’s dining options and parking and renovate the infrastructure in hopes of once again hosting concerts and other entertainment events. Like their Dade County neighbors at the Dania Fronton, the Miami facility is already making a hefty portion of their revenue from a poker room.
At this state of the game, however, its obvious that jai alai is merely a ‘means to an end’ under Florida gaming law. The historical and tourism significance of the state’s parimutual facilities—particularly horse racing and jai alai—was a means to placate social conservatives and religious fundamentalists who oppose more widespread gambling. For this reason alone, jai alai will survive in Florida for now but this reprieve is tenuous at best. With governments at all levels increasingly desperate for revenue and sociopolitical attitudes toward gambling changing (albeit gradually) more liberal laws governing casinos in the state might not be far off. Horse racing isn’t quite as vulnerable due to its larger fanbase and at least nominal coverage by the mainstream sports media, but a scenario where jai alai finally outlives its usefulness to gaming companies is not hard to envision.
The sport will survive on some level, however, and there have been a number of amateur jai alai frontons to open up in Florida, Connecticut and elsewhere over the past few years. As a spectator sport—let alone one that professionals can make a living from—jai alai may soon go the way of velodrome bicycle racing.