April 16, 2024
Will A New Model Save The Dying Pro Sport Of Jai Alai?

Photo: Jeffrey Salter

Jai alai is played against three walls — the front, the back and one side wall. The object is to throw the ball at the wall in a way that makes it hard for the opponent to catch and return it.

Will A New Model Save The Dying Pro Sport Of Jai Alai?

Mike Vogel | 10/5/2021
The Casino@Dania Beach became the latest parimutuel in Florida to announce it was dropping jai alai, the iconic sport that once drew thousands to Florida frontons to wager. Professional jai alai, a kind of racquet ball played on a three-walled court in an eight-player round-robin parimutuel format, survives at Magic City Casino in Miami. Scott Savin, Magic City’s chief operating officer, says the pro sport’s future lies in head-to-head matches with online gamblers wagering on the outcome.

Dania Beach is dropping jai alai. Why are you still going?
We have taken a different course, different slant on the game, which I think you have to do in 2021 going into 2022.

Why do you think you can make a go of it?
Jai alai has been played in a parimutuel fashion forever. It’s a low-risk form of wagering for the venue. You’re just taking a fixed amount off the top and distributing the rest to the (wagerers). We did a lot of focus groups in 2019 — all age groups, male and female, all ethnicities. They found the parimutuel format very confusing. I didn’t really know how to fix it.

But you think you do now.
We started H2H (head-to-head) this year. I was marveling during the pandemic at the amount of money wagered on Russian ping pong. I got an article that said $50 million in one month was wagered on Russian ping pong in Colorado. Ping pong — tennis — how do I make jai alai akin to that? If we can grow the sport, the way to monetize it is through H2H-style of play and sports wagering. In 2021 and going into 2022, the U.S. is exploding into sports wagering. Hopefully, we’ll be in lockstep in a growing industry.

How will it work?
It’s super-easy to understand. The first player to win two sets wins a match. From a wagering perspective, you can bet on the match, bet on the sets, bet on individual points played. We are live in both Iowa and Illinois for sports wagering on it. That’s through a partnership with Rush Street’s BetRivers. When we start the 2022 season, the goal hopefully is to be in seven to 10 states. Next step is to go international with it.
So a person who comes to Magic City can’t wager on a head-to-head match? That’s not been approved in for Floridians to wager on?
Half our performances will be played parimutuel and half H2H. I think they can both co-exist together. On Saturdays we play at 1:30 parimutuel. Then we take a half hour break and at 5 o’clock we play H2H. If you’re here at 5 o’clock, you’re watching great jai alai players but you’re not wagering on it.

What’s the fallout from Dania’s ceasing jai alai?
With everyone else abandoning the sport, there are a lot of the world’s best jai alai players out there who don’t want to stop playing. We have the ability to expand our roster. In 2022 without any doubt Magic City is the best jai alai in the world. You have the best players in the world throwing this ball at up to 150 mph on a smaller court. 
Why the investment in jai alai? There must be a more profitable use of the space at the casino.
Admittedly, I’m biased. To me, it has every ingredient that something needs to be successful in the sports wagering world. It’s the fastest ball sport in the world, with great athletes and an element of danger — they’re throwing a ball that’s as hard as a rock. If it can be saved, we think this is the way to save it.

Magic City made a name for itself launching jai alai by recruiting athletic stars from other sports who were new to jai alai. What happens to them? 
Anyone who started with us in year one who continues to practice and develop their game is going to be kept on the roster. They’re the heart and soul of what we’ve built here. Some of them have gotten to be really good players. Some of the other guys clearly are not as good as the Dania players that are going to be joining us. We’re not going to abandon those guys. They’ve put in four years of effort. 

Beyond jai alai, how is the casino business today?
“The casino business if fantastic. It’s as good as it’s ever been.”

Magic City (and its sibling parimutuel Bonita Springs Poker Room) has challenged in federal court the state’s sports betting deal with the Seminoles. Any comment on that?
“That’s a subject we’re staying away from. It’s pending litigation.”

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