jai alai is almost on its knees as a spectator sport

Having grown up in Miami Beach with friends and parents who frequently went to watch jai alai played in beautiful frontons filled with excited spectators and gamblers betting on their favorite athletes—the only sport with legalized betting on humans—I am shocked to learn that the sport is waning, even dying. Especially now that I have started playing the sport . Although kids in Spain and elsewhere have probably thrown balls against walls for centuries, the first fronton was built in Spain in 1798, and the first fronton in the States was built in Miami in 1924.

In December 1975, 15,502 people came to the largest attended fronton at Miami jai Alai, and 10-12,000 a night was common. Celebrities and high society went regularly to frontons to watch and cheer and bet. The top players were stars. Friends of mine recall dressing up fashionably most Saturday nights and catching a few games after dinner. There were schools on different continents training hopefuls longing to join the 1000 professionals who played in 10 Florida frontons and six others in Connecticut (3), Rhode Island (1) and Nevada (2). There were also two more in Cuba.

Francisco Churruca jumps for the pelota (ball)—he was the Babe Ruth of jai alai

But things change. With so few venues, the fronton owners exploited the players, paying them poorly and making them live and work in terrible circumstances. If the players complained, they were fired and sent back to Spain, because their visas were only valid if they were employed. Finally fed up, the top players went on a strike that lasted three years (1988-1991). Many were forced to return home to Spain, and those who filled in were second-rate.

Forced to watch lesser talent, the fans rebelled too, and attendance dropped off precipitously. Between 1992 and 2003, most of the frontons closed down. Today in the States, there are only six left in Florida, and sometimes fewer than 100 fans are watching the games. I can’t believe it. There may be just 500 professionals playing jai alai now throughout the world.

When I ask people who know the history, they tell me that there are two other reasons for the decline. One is that people prefer to bet in other venues, like casinos, where the action is continuous…no long pauses for the impatient between games, when the gamblers have to decide who to choose and go to betting windows. Another is the rise of other sports that grabbed the fans’ attention during the strike and never let go. Incidentally I learned that interest in dog racing and horse racing is also declining.

The Florida legislature passed a law in 2003 that allowed poker to be played in a jai alai fronton, as well as off-track betting on horse and dog races. I am told that poker is what keeps the frontons alive, and the jai alai betting and income for the fronton owners is really a small part of the revenue they make. So the fabulous sport of jai alai has been relegated to minor status in its own facilities.

My friend Rudy, who plays at an amateur fronton in Miami, sent me this article about the state of the sport in Spain. It is very sad, even dismal, to read of such a decline. Nevertheless I can’t wait to go to a fronton in Miami next time I am there and see the action that has thrilled so many for so long. The fans may have disappeared, the excitement may have waned, but I am sure the thrill of watching the athleticism of the pros will be as uplifting as ever.

In case you are really interested, here is a 1965 Sports Illustrated article about Churruca, who in the ’60’s was considered the sport’s greatest player ever. And here is another article interviewing a former pro, David Stark in 2010 and an excerpt from it that explains sadly why jai alai will never come back:

QUESTION 17: Where do you see the game of jai-alai going in the future? Does it have a future?

STARK: “It’s a dying sport. There are not enough facilities open with year-round jai alai for the game to have a rebirth. God, what Jai Alai used to be compared to what jai alai is now? When I played Dania Jai Alai on a Saturday, a matinee and a night, we’d handle over a million dollars in a day. In a day! We’d do $1000, $1200, $1500 a game on weekends. We’re talking a million dollars in two performances, matinee and night. There’s maybe 50, 100 people in the audience now, but when I played it was 5-7000. When I played we’d have longer seasons, five months here, six months there. For Orlando, I think their sister property was in Quincy. So for six months, Orlando Jai Alai was the only thing in town. Then when it went to Quincy, you’d have the dog track. Now Orlando Jai-Alai only plays LIVE jai alai from February to April. Why? There’s just too much stuff to bet on these days. Now you have the Lottery, Indian Casinos, poker, Simulcasting. Back when I played, you’d come in you could only bet on jai alai. You couldn’t bet on horse and harness tracks in California, New York, Chicago, etc. The poker boom kinda put those last couple of nails in the coffin. You look at the world series of poker last year and everybody’s between 19 and 25 years old. Every college student is online on PokerStars.net. Everybody is playing poker. And jai alai is a game that is not televised. You can’t have a great player come along. Like if a “Bolivar” came along again now, he’s not going to be able to do what Tiger Woods has done, where he’s brought so many more people into the game of golf. I mean even here, we’re only live for two months. Miami and Dania have a fair quality to their roster. And it’s very hard to build a quality roster in a place like Orlando, where you’re going to have world-class jai alai players, and PLEASE do not take this WRONG – whoever is on the roster right now is a PROFESSIONAL jai alai player and CAN PLAY. Please don’t get me wrong. But you can’t get the quality of players to come play for 7 weeks and have no where else to go.