By Nathan Tucker
In this edition of Better Know A Sport, we hit the casinos of South Florida to take a look at jai alai. Now nearly forgotten, jai alai (pronounced high uh-lie) once drew thousands and thousands to auditoriums in Florida’s always gaudy casinos.
Many sports become fodder for gamblers and the gaming industry. One might argue that gambling and the billions of dollars involved in it are why many sports exist as they do today. But only jai alai completely exists, at least in the United States, within the confines of a smoky casino.
THE LAWS OF THE GAME
Jai alai is played in both singles and doubles, like tennis or racquetball. Unlike those, a game in a casino is played with 8 players or teams, with a “winner stays on” format.
Winning a point in jai alai is much like tennis or racquetball. A point is scored when a player’s shot isn’t returned, if an opponent bobbles or deflects the ball but doesn’t catch and return it, or if an opponent’s return misses the serve area, the point losers leave the court and are replaced with another team or player.
The team with the most points, and by association, stays on the longest, wins each round. A game is two rounds, and in that second round, points are doubled. Whole matches are made up of games split between singles and doubles teams, with varying jackpots for certain games.
Players sling the ball at the front wall of the fronton, the term for the enclosed court, which is made of granite to prevent shattering. The court itself is about as long as a hockey rink, but as wide as a tennis court. A net or fence separates the court and the high-speed ball from onlookers.
Jai alai was not invented by the entertainment manager of a Florida casino, despite what I’ve said in the introduction to this article. The sport dates back to ancient ball games that have existed since ancient civilizations birthed sports out of a desire for entertainment and exercise.
Many variants of ball games existed long before rules and regulations were able to travel the globe. In the US, ancient ball games played by indigenous tribes more resembled soccer, lacrosse or sports with marked goals.
The sport known as jai alai today is a close relative of Basque pelota, itself a variant of ancient ball games. Pelota is played mostly in the Basque regions of south-western France and north-eastern Spain, where the sport was born and takes its namesake from.
Pelota did not really catch on in the region until the mid-1800s. Whenever the scoop-shaped glove/basket was developed, allowing players to sling a ball at nearly 200 miles per hour, the popularity of the game boomed.
AN AMERICAN REBRAND
Basque pelota was given a fresh coat of paint as jai alai, and was introduced to the United States in 1904. The first fronton in US history was built in St. Louis, as part of the 1904 World’s Fair.
From that moment, the game spread, primarily to places where gambling was legal and casinos were prevalent. Jai alai frontons made their way to Florida, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Nevada. Outside of Florida, the game only enjoyed very brief success.
Jai alai has gained a reputation for being an incredibly fast and dangerous sport. With the ball flying at speeds well over 100 miles per hour, a slight error in timing has painful consequences.
Before the advent of helmets and padding in the sport, it was common for jai alai players to suffer serious injuries, and sometimes even perish from said injuries. Jai alai’s danger and speed were one of the selling factors for the sport to those who were looking for a fun game to gamble on.
Jai alai’s true heyday was in Miami in the 1970s and 80s, just as nightlife in the city boomed well. It became a fixture of the city’s upper-crust, men in too-bright suits betting large sums of money on the game they mostly knew nothing about.
Crowds of over ten thousand would pack into the Magic City Casino to watch jai alai in the 1980s. Being a casino that allowed smoking, the packed auditorium was usually smoky and dark, but with a roaring crowd yelling in support of their wagers.
At its peak, jai alai became part of Miami’s culture. It was even in the opening theme for the show Miami Vice. Unfortunately for the sport, gambling expanded beyond mechanical slots and card tables to video poker and slots. Many of its supporters, bettors, simply stopped wanting to watch whole jai alai contests compared to the instant gambling gratification of video gaming.
JAI ALAI, TODAY
On a professional level, Jai Alai only continues to exist in casinos in and around Miami. Gone are the crowds of thousands of elites, in their stead are a few dozen casino regulars, many of whom know the teams and players inside and out.
The massive auditoriums that once housed jai alai are all but gone. With more people watching jai alai through betting sites and YouTube, live audiences are nowhere near the over ten thousand they once drew.
Jai Alai Miami, Casino Miami’s famous fronton, known in the sport’s prime as the “Yankee Stadium of jai alai”, now draws maybe a few hundred spectators per contest. Players in these casinos are still professionals, but they’re not the stars they once were.
Magic City Casino in Miami tried to spark interest in the sport by reaching out to former University of Miami football players to try their hand as professional jai alai players.
The sport has made a slight bounce back in the city through reaching out to the former stars of the gridiron.
In 2020, in a quarantined world, all the spectators are now online, but jai alai continues in casinos in Miami. Despite its relative obscurity, betting demand for the sport globally keeps players paid and casinos operating frontons today.