Jai Alai Makes Its Last Stand In Florida

As the sport nears its 100th anniversary in the U.S., only one operator still runs pro matches
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Like many other Miami residents of a certain age, Dan Licciardi remembers jai alai’s glory days.

As a five-decade employee of the company that ran the Miami (Fla.) Jai Alai Fronton, whose 96-year-old court is called the Yankee Stadium of the sport, Licciardi remembers it a lot better than most, in fact.

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, jai alai was as much a part of the Miami scene as South Beach nightclubs and the bustling streets of Little Havana. In 1976, one weekend jai alai program brought 15,052 well-dressed fans out to watch some of the best players in the world at Miami Jai Alai. Other jai alai venues popped up in Tampa, Daytona Beach, West Palm Beach, Quincy, and Melbourne, and the sport even pushed north into Connecticut.

“Jai alai was gowns and suit jackets, chandeliers in the bathrooms,” Licciardi recalled. “It was a pretty remarkable place to watch it. It was an event for sure.”

The intervening decades in the U.S. gambling industry proved unkind to the fastest ball sport in the world. When Florida voters authorized the lottery in 1986, that was one massive blow to the industry. When the International Jai-Alai Players Association held the longest strike in U.S. professional sports history – 2 ½ years ending in 1991 – the sport staggered again.

Jai alai lingered in the ensuing decades only because Florida law required casinos to be coupled with a parimutuel activity of some sort. And when Florida voted to decouple casino betting and parimutuel wagering last year, it could have been the death knell for a sport on the verge of celebrating its 100th anniversary in America.

Instead, Monday night was opening night for jai alai’s last stand in the United States.

One man bets big on jai alai

The idea hatched five years ago over at Magic City Casino, which sits smack dab between historic Calle Ocho and Miami International Airport. Scott Savin, chief operating officer at Magic City, had a fronton built there in 2018, mostly because he and the business were trying to get out from under dog racing, which carried a hefty real estate cost and was under attack from animal rights activists.

In order to keep his slot machines clicking, Savin needed a parimutuel activity. Why not jai alai? Well, to start with, the cost of paying the unionized professional players made it unpalatable. The athletes, most of whom grew up in the birthplace of the sport, the Basque region of Spain, weren’t going to play for the salaries Savin wanted to offer.

That sparked an idea: Savin asked the owners of Magic City Casino, the Hecht family, to use their University of Miami connections.

Savin wanted “the U” to send out a blast email to all of its former athletes from the past 20 years and offer them the chance to play jai alai for money. He was not offering big money, but enough to support a family.

Florence Hecht was a member of the UM Board of Trustees and had donated enough money over the years to have the university’s first residential college named after her. The email went out.

University of Miami provides players

Many of the ex-Hurricane athletes thought the email was a mistake at first, but a few became intrigued. The tale of a bunch of ex-football players – including former ‘Canes quarterback Kenny Kelly – learning the sport under the guidance of two former jai alai stars is the fodder for the highly entertaining documentary, Magic City Hustle, directed by Billy Corben, whose other projects include The U and Cocaine Cowboys.

And now? Magic City Jai Alai kicked off its fifth season Monday night. In the years since that first, strange season, the play has improved dramatically. Of the 28 players on Magic City’s roster, 11 of the original players are still in action. Even in Savin’s estimation, the play in the early going was “horrible,” but he insists it’s now world-class.

Five former U of M athletes are still competing, while the rest of the players have flocked there since it’s the only game in town. Seven of the professional Basque players, many of whom told Savin his idea was absurd when he began the experiment, have now joined the roster. Players also have come to Magic City from Mexico and the Philippines.

“When the Basque players came into the locker room, acceptance was an issue, but because the guys did so well the last few years and beat some of these players in tournaments, the respect factor was there,” Savin said. “Now, it’s one, big, happy multicultural scene with a lot of languages being spoken in the locker room.”

One player, Tanard Davis, won a Super Bowl ring as a reserve cornerback with the Indianapolis Colts and became a police officer before trying jai alai. He finished second in the inaugural season and took home $15,000 in prize money, in addition to his base salary of roughly $70,000, which includes benefits. The players now make anywhere from $45,000 to $115,000 over the six-month season, Savin said.

Quality of play improves

Last year’s doubles champions, brothers Matt and Ben Langhams, learned the sport from their father, Douglas, who had played professionally in the 1980s.

Matt Langhams, who also won last year’s singles title, didn’t pick up a cesta (the curved glove players catch the pelota, or ball, in) until he was 18. Once the No. 2-rated right-handed high school pitcher in the nation behind Kumar Rocker, Langhams’ baseball career ended when he threw a 90-mph fastball his junior year that tore the labrum in his right shoulder.

A ball thrown from a jai alai cesta reaches speeds up to 150 mph. The players’ only padding is a helmet. The ball is as hard and heavy as a hockey puck.

“If you had asked me four years ago whether I thought I could have won a national tournament, I would have said you were crazy,” Langhams said. “That’s how far our program has come in four years.”

While the quality of play has improved and the purses are creeping up, enticing more players to compete, the sport isn’t going to fight its way back from the brink of extinction unless it gains a firm business foothold in the U.S. Savin admits jai alai still isn’t profitable for Magic City, but he is hopeful it will be by 2023 at the latest. If it doesn’t break even by then, it’s possible the sport will die on U.S. soil while celebrating its 100th anniversary here.

Partnerships flourishing

Savin remains optimistic. When he noticed that Colorado bettors wagered $50 million one month on ping-pong during the pandemic, he knew he had betting product with potential. Jai alai offers an element of athleticism and danger that Savin thinks will appeal to young people more than table tennis.

“We have very high hopes that this can be a major niche sport that we can build a strong following with,” Savin said.

A partnership with BetRivers means Magic City Jai Alai is available to online gamblers in the seven states where BetRivers has its online sportsbooks.

“For bettors, sports like table tennis popularized point-by-point live wagering during the COVID-19 pandemic and jai alai head-to-head will continue to serve this appetite in a familiar yet innovative way,” said Mattias Stetz, COO of BetRivers’ online sports betting arm. “Magic City has taken the traditions of a dated parimutuel game and re-imagined its format to increase speed, athleticism and betting opportunities for a 21st century audience. Simply put, this is not your grandfather’s jai alai.”

Savin and his team tweaked the rules to make it more understandable to American audiences, even combining the players into teams for this season. Unlike the traditional fronton, Magic City’s has glass front and back walls, which makes the sport far better to watch on TV. Furthermore, Savin is just finishing up distribution deals with streaming services Triple-B TV and Samsung Plus, among others, so that 125 million people will be able to watch jai alai in their homes this season.

Magic City put out a “how-to-play” video in its first year and that video has seen 15 million views on TikTok, fueling Savin’s view that it can become popular with a younger audience.

“It’s kind of funny: You have all these other sports you can bet on now, and then you have the one ball sport people could bet on for the last 50 years and it’s almost on the brink of extinction,” Savin said. “But we’re trying to come back and reinvent ourselves.”

Photo: Shutterstock

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