Fronton and Center
Florida Jai alai makes a comeback
Increases in jai alai revenue haven’t matched the growth in the number of frontons — just the opposite. Dania Jai Alai in Dania Beach has by far the largest handle in jai alai in Florida. On a recent Saturday night, about 100 people watched players battle on the court. Between games, the lines to wager ran to a half dozen and more. Collectively, in the state’s last full year of data, total jai alai wagering statewide was $8.5 million, down from the year before. Says Lockwood, the attorney, “jai alai alone is not a profitable enterprise.”
But it presents no animal issues, and Magic City’s fronton, built inside an existing space, takes a fraction of the seven acres needed for dog racing. Getting rid of the tracks in favor of a fronton opens valuable acreage to sale or redevelopment. The grandstand for Magic City’s old dog track now fills for concerts by the likes of George Thorogood.
As players practice on the fronton court to the pistol-shot crack of a pelota hitting court panels, Savin outlines how the jai alai loss leader took on a life of its own.
Magic City spent less than $1 million to have the fronton court built in Spain and assembled in Miami. In hiring players, Savin wanted to avoid the region’s existing, unionized players. Magic City’s Havenick family has long ties to the University of Miami. That relationship allowed Savin to reach out to former Canes and later to other schools’ former athletes, believing good athletes could be made into good jai alai players. About a score of neophytes began practicing in January 2018. “We’re trying to teach them a sport that’s almost dead,” Savin says. The last dog race ran June 29, 2018. Jai alai commenced two days later.
Roque, a tall 42-year-old, remembers being surprised by his paycheck. “Practicing and got paid for it? Really? I was dumbfounded.”
Magic City also drew Kenny Kelly, a former Major League Baseball player and one-time quarterback for the University of Miami; Baraka Short, a defensive end on UM’s national championship team; Tanard Davis, a former Cane who played on the Indianapolis Colts’ Super Bowl winning plus a high hurdler and a lacrosse player. One drove for Uber. One had an ice cream truck. Some were personal trainers.
The unconventional players drew the interest of Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, maker of Cocaine Cowboys, U and Broke. He decided to follow the rookies through their education and first season. His documentary, Magic City Hustle, won the Miami Film Festival’s 2019 Documentary Achievement Award and brought further attention to the program. The synopsis: “In Miami, a dying sport gets a reprieve when a local dog track conjures up a scheme to enlist some former has-been and never-was University of Miami athletes to play Jai-Alai as token requisite to further their pari-mutuel interests.”
To build interest, Savin wants players’ personalities to stand out. Among other moves, he breaks with tradition by giving them individual walk-up music like pro baseball players — Roque’s song is “Legend Has It” by Run the Jewels — and nicknames. Roque chose “Tennessee” since he’s originally from Nashville. In January, Roque returned to practice after a pinky fracture healed. “Just got cleared,” he says. “My mind was going crazy because I couldn’t be out here the last couple weeks.”
Roque still coaches high school baseball, but now he’s a substitute teacher after taking a leave from full-time teaching to put in more effort on jai alai. “Doing our best to make it come back,” he says. “We’re in the process.”
Savin believes players should have low salaries and high prize money — the opposite of traditional compensation. He says Miami’s highest earner last year made “about $80,000” in prize money and salary while the lowest made $45,000.
As at most pari-mutuel events, attendance is free. A weekday matinee might draw 50 spectators. On Sundays, Magic City jai alai’s best day, with the help of a bounce house and other enticements, plus an air-conditioned venue with free parking in the summer, as many as 300 people come. That pales compared to the 5,000 people a day hitting the casino and poker room on what are known as non-concert days.
The first year’s handle at Magic City jai alai was just $1.7 million, second in Florida to Dania Jai Alai. Savin won’t quantify how much Magic City loses on jai alai but says the loss is a quarter of the loss on dogs.