Benny Bueno has played at Guernica. He was the runner-up in the 1994 World Cup of Jai Alai played at what many people consider the cathedral of the centuries-old game, a massive fronton in the Basque region of Spain that was rebuilt after horrific civil war bombing in 1937 that inspired one of Picasso’s most famous paintings.
So, he has seen what the sport he loves can endure.
After a 25-year playing career, Bueno is the jai alai operations manager at Dania Beach Casino in Florida. He is hoping the return of the parimutuel sport to that 69-year-old fronton, one of the most famous jai alai venues in the U.S., can help keep the sport alive at least a little bit longer here. Or, if things go very well, help lead a revival.
He’s been on the job since 2009 and, just a year ago, many people thought the Dania Beach fronton had seen its last action, so the stakes are high.
“When it’s quiet and it’s dark and the ball’s not hitting the front wall, it can be a little sad sometimes,” Bueno said. “Coming back to it is exciting. It’s been so long that I’m hoping the fans appreciate the effort and they support it.”
Wagering is key to profitability
Eventually, somebody’s got to turn a profit for jai alai to be sustainable in the U.S. Just like Magic City Casino 30 miles to the south, Dania Beach hasn’t yet figured that part out. It’s had a couple of exhibition seasons, but the two-month tournament that starts Dec. 1 at the Dania Jai Alai Palace will be the first parimutuel action of its kind there in more than a year.
Matches will be streamed on the casino’s YouTube channel, and parimutuel bettors can get in on the action in Florida and Connecticut. Betting will also be available on WatchAndWager.com in states where that app is legal.
Dania Beach and Magic City are the only active frontons in the U.S. Jai alai, the fastest ball sport in the world, reached its heyday in the U.S. by the mid-1990s, but it has been in decline ever since.
“Without a doubt, this is going to be a test to see if there’s still interest from the fans,” Bueno said. “As far as the business is concerned, we could put on seasons and bring in the best players and have everything internally working great, but if the fans have moved on or don’t support it, it will definitely be detrimental to our efforts. We’re hoping the fans here from before, and the new fans or those watching at other frontons, will gravitate toward us when we play.”
Revival efforts alive in Europe, too
Bueno is hoping a resurgence of popularity in Europe could spill over to the U.S. Ironically, it was Dania Beach shuttering jai alai one year ago that helped fuel that old-world revival, as many of the players moved back to the Basque region to try to prolong their careers.
In Bueno’s playing days, there were roughly 600 professional jai alai players in the world, including those who played at Florida’s 15 active frontons. Now, there are about 100 pro jai alai players competing wherever it’s still played globally.
Decades ago, most of the great players emerged either from Guernica or the 17th century fronton in Markina, once known as the University of Pelota in northern Spain because it produced so much top talent. By 2009, London’s The Guardian ran a story headlined “Slow death of a fast sport” about the decline of jai alai in the Basque country.
Jai alai traditionally was played only in summer in Europe, but the event organizers ran a two-month winter series at Guernica last year. It originally was planned only for broadcast instead of in-person attendance, but fans began showing up. Organizers decided to sell tickets and, by the end of the tournament, they sold out the last seven events in a 5,000-seat arena.
“It never really died out over there, but it definitely had its peak and valley,” Bueno said. “Now, it’s definitely on an upswing over there.”
It’s one thing to see a revival of jai alai in its birthplace. It’s another task entirely to revive it in a U.S. sports betting space that is increasingly diverse and competitive. Bueno understands there are no guarantees, but he’s hopeful the fronton where he works won’t become a dusty relic of the past, something that seemed a foregone conclusion one year ago.
“For me, it’s been a long year,” he said.