Jai alai has been a Florida staple for almost 100 years. Now, the fast-moving Basque game is leaving The Casino at Dania Beach just before the end of its 70th year there. The last game at the facility was played Nov. 28.
Jai alai, which arrived in Florida in the 1920s, is known for being both dangerous and entertaining, as balls ricochet on a three-walled court called a “fronton” at nearly 200 mph, hurled by players wearing a curved glove made of wicker called a cesta.
“It is very intense,” said Darryll Roque, who has played jai alai professionally for four years.
Last spring, the Florida Legislature removed the requirement for casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to hold jai alai or harness, quarter-horse, or thoroughbred horse races if they wanted to run slot machines or card rooms. Greyhound racing, held at some casinos, was banned in 2018.
With that requirement gone, The Casino at Dania Beach is getting rid of jai alai because of all their revenue sources, it makes the least money.
“It’s not a personal decision,” said Benny Bueno, jai alai operations manager in Dania Beach. “I’d like to believe that they are going to research ways of keeping it in a format that doesn’t lose them money.”
It’s a business decision that could leave most players unemployed.
“This is our livelihood, this is something that we’ve done forever,” said Bueno, who used to play jai alai professionally. “It’s the players. It’s the support staff; the fans are a little disappointed that we’re not going to play, but it comes down to a business decision.”
The casino’s 26 players are at the center of these changes.
“The players will definitely be affected, no question about it,” said Stuart Neiman, director of jai-alai operations at Magic City Casino in Miami.
Neiman said that Magic City plans to continue and even expand its jai-alai roster next season, and that might include Dania players.
Other players might not stay in Florida, though.
“Some of them might end up going overseas to play in Spain and over in Europe,” said Roque, adding they’d be welcome to play on his team at Magic City.
The game was most popular around the 1970s and ’80s, and Neiman said it’d had a good 90-year run. However, it struggles to stay popular.
“It’s much more difficult to compete for entertainment dollars in this environment, and it’s been a process that’s been going on for about 25 years,” Neiman said.
One problem is how patrons bet on jai alai, a format called “parimutuel.” This method has patrons wager against other bettors on the same game. The bets go into a pool, and people who make the winning selection share equally.
“This format is antiquated,” said Bueno. “It’s probably the only business where you have to pay all your overhead with a very small percentage of your revenue.
It’s a complicated format that doesn’t work well for casinos, which keep very little of the pool.
“A lot of it is split between the fans that are betting, a lot of the money goes back into the pool and a lot of the money goes to our simulcast partners,” said Bueno. “So the way that the business model is formulated is not really healthy for keeping jai alai.”
Head-to-head, or H2H gambling, is a potential solution to the parimutuel problem.
“Sports betting, which is what the H2H format is, you’re betting on who is going to win,” said Neiman. “There’s not eight guys competing or eight teams competing.”
Magic City intends to play half of their games under parimutuel rules and the other half as H2H.
“It’s like any startup, it could flourish, or it could die,” said Bueno. “That’s yet to be seen.”
Originally, H2H betting for jai alai was only approved in Iowa, Illinois and Arizona, but gamblers in these states could bet remotely on Florida games.
Without H2H, Jai alai may be in dire straits. However, Roque believes that if enough people start watching jai alai – he hopes the game will start being nationally televised – it will become popular again.
“If people were able to watch it one time, they’ll be very excited and want to come back out there and watch it again,” said Roque. “That’s what I’ve gotten from other people that have come out here to watch us.”
Clarification: Because of an editing error, a headline on an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Dania Ja Alai’s age. We regret the error.