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. Read the rest of this entry »

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