Jai Alai’s Last U.S. Fronton Hoping For Boost From Battle Court

A reimagining of the sport to make it more appealing to a U.S. audience is off to a promising start in Florida
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If jai alai is going to make a comeback in the United States after decades of decline, the fastest ball sport in the world is going to need fans as excited about it as the Blechman family of Chicago.

Michael Blechman fell in love with the centuries-old Basque sport back in its heyday, the 1970s and ’80s, and watched with a degree of sadness as it declined in the U.S. starting in the 1990s. Then, like a bolt from the blue, he was reminded of that long lost fondness for jai alai when he got a call from his son, Andrew, who was job-hunting in the sports broadcasting industry — not exactly an easy racket to break into — after he graduated from the University of Miami in 2019.

Andrew sent in a resumé to be the play-by-play announcer for something called Magic City Jai Alai. Little did he or the rest of the family know he had made contact with jai alai’s last stand in the U.S.

When Magic City Jai Alai asked Blechman how old he was and he responded by telling them he was 21, the interviewer responded that no one his age could possibly know anything about a sport that had all but withered on the vine in his lifetime.

“He said, ‘With all due respect, I’m a third-generation gambling degenerate and my father’s been taking me to jai alai since I was 3 years old,’” Michael Blechman told US Bets.

After scoring 100% on a quiz testing his knowledge of the rules, Andrew landed the gig. When he showed a knack for putting together highlight packages, he was hired to work full time in the marketing department when he’s not announcing matches.

Owners return for Season 2

Little did Magic City know that hiring Andrew Blechman would help lead to another revenue stream that might help keep the sport from dying on U.S. soil. His parents, Michael and Nina Blechman, decided to pony up $100,000 to purchase a team for the first Battle Court season of Magic City Jai Alai.

Private team ownership was one of the brainchildren of Scott Savin, the architect of jai alai’s attempted revival, who has been working since 2018 to try to keep the sport alive in South Florida. He told US Bets in June that, while the sport has yet to become profitable for Magic City Casino, it will survive on Magic City’s fronton at least through 2023.

The Blechmans aren’t in it for the money. In fact, no matter how well their team does this season (after finishing last in 2021), there’s no way for them to break even. They can, however, reap as much as $50,000 in prize money, plus some revenue-sharing dollars, which they say they will donate to Jack Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami if they win. Michael Blechman made his money in the specialized publishing industry, sold his company to a private equity firm in 2011, and is, in his words, “for all intents and purposes being paid not to work the rest of my life. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The 2021 season was the first for Battle Court, Magic City’s attempt to make jai alai a team sport by aggregating singles and doubles matches into a point system. All four owners returned for the 2022 season. The three other team owners are the result of media-barter deals cut by Savin to grow the sport’s exposure in South Florida. One team owner is Chris Cote, producer of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz. The others are FM radio personalities in Miami: K Marie “La Gringa Más Latina,” from 94.9 and Jammin’ Johnny from El Zol 106.7.

Cote’s Cesta Cyclones squad won the 2021 season, but the Blechmans say they feel pretty good about their team this season after Friday’s first-ever draft, during which they concentrated on strengthening their doubles teams.

“The Cesta Cyclones were great. We have a lot of work to do to be able to catch up to them,” Nina Blechman said, “but we’re going to try as hard as we can to do it.”

Sport’s last stand extended

Magic City Jai Alai has been active since 2018, when Savin resuscitated the sport by breaking the players union and recruiting former University of Miami athletes to learn the sport and compete. He cut a deal with BetRivers, still the only mobile sportsbook that offers betting on Magic City Jai Alai. BetRivers is available in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, and Illinois, as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. The only way to bet on jai alai in Florida is to show up at Magic City, which offers parimutuel wagering.

Battle Court Season 2 starts Sept. 23 and runs through Nov. 18, with games played three days a week on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday.

Savin’s most recent coup was a deal with ESPN, which aired a one-hour special on the sport — replete with highlights from Andrew Blechman and his partner, Stu Neiman. ESPN3 will stream all Battle Court matches this season. It’s also available via the Jai Alai TV app. The matches are available in 115 million homes, according to Magic City.

Partnerships like those Savin has worked out will be part of eventually making jai alai profitable, if he can pull it off, but more important could be enthusiasm like that shown by the Blechman family.

“During the pandemic, people were betting on ping-pong and cornhole and axe throwing and everything else,” Michael Blechman said. “This is far better than any of those sports. Yes, I believe it’s gaining traction very quickly.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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