Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

Florida Jai alai makes a comeback

Right-handed pitcher Darryl Roque threw for the University of Miami’s College World Series winning team in 1999 before spending eight years in the minors for the Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos. After pro baseball, he became a teacher and baseball coach at Miami Southridge High. A couple of years ago, he and other former Canes got an email from Magic City Casino in Miami inviting them to try out for professional jai alai. “Most of us thought it was a fake email,” he says.

They had good reason to wonder, given jai alai’s decline. Akin to racquetball, jai alai originated in the Basque region of Spain, where kids grow up familiar with the wovenreed cestas used to throw and catch a goat-skin-covered pelota. The first professional jai alai fronton in the nation opened in Miami in the 1920s, and for awhile, the sport thrived. In Florida, Rhode Island and Connecticut, thousands packed frontons to wager on players in “the world’s fastest game.” (The ball is said to go upward of 180 mph.)

Times changed. Gamblers’ tastes shifted toward the lottery, internet wagering and slots and blackjack at tribe owned casinos. Parimutuels — horse and dog tracks and jai alai — suffered. A jai alai players strike in the 1990s didn’t help. In the 10 years before that email landed in Roque’s inbox, parimutuel wagering in Florida had fallen by 38%, with the “handle” — the total amount wagered — tumbling to $688 million. Professional frontons closed everywhere outside Florida, and Jai Alai beer, produced by Tampa’s Cigar City Brewing, became more widespread than the sport from which it got its name.

The bright spot for Southeast Florida pari-mutuels was the coming of card rooms and slot machines at the tracks and frontons. That same year the former Canes athletes got that e-mail, pari-mutuels in Florida rang up $168 million in card room revenue statewide and $8 billion in slot revenue. The changing times are reflected just north of Little Havana in Miami at what used to be called Flagler Greyhound Track, now known as Magic City Casino. Once, thousands filled the grandstand to watch dogs race. By 2017-18, however, Flagler’s racing revenue was down to $3 million on a $15-million handle. The gambling action had shifted indoors to the poker room and the slot machines in the casino, which in 2017-18 brought in $58.6 million in net slot revenue after the state’s 35% tax bite.

Dog racing at that single track, however, still produced more wagering and tax revenue than all of jai alai in Florida. But, in an odd twist, the challenges facing dog racing and horse racing created an opening for jai alai.

Simply put, jai alai loses less money in a much smaller footprint than horse and dog racing. The business case for it owes to Florida’s patchwork of gambling legislation. Outside tribal casinos, state law allowed casinos only at parimutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward that maintained dog, horse or jai alai operations. To keep the slots, they had to keep racing — and slinging pelotas.

Magic City is owned by the Havenick family, who also own the Bonita Springs dog track. Back in 2006, the family hired longtime Florida gambling executive Scott Savin — formerly president of one of Florida’s remaining viable horse racing venues, Gulfstream Park — as COO to help convert Flagler into a slot-operating casino. Savin saw opportunity in jai alai. “We didn’t expect it to be money-making, but we knew it would lose less than dog racing,” Savin says.

John Lockwood, a Tallahassee attorney who represents many state pari-mutuels, went to court to win Magic City the right to switch from dogs to jai alai. He also discovered a quirk in state law that enabled more jai alai permits to be issued. “It’s an obscure little loophole, but it’s completely changed the face of this activity in South Florida,” he says.

The number of state-authorized jai alai permit holders is up to 12 this year, compared to eight just a couple years ago. Calder, the Miami area horse track owned by Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, now runs jai alai. Hialeah Park opened a jai alai fronton in Florida City near the south terminus of Florida’s Turnpike. Isle Pompano, the harness track and casino owned by Eldorado Resorts, has taken a jai alai permit and expects to build a fronton this year.

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.

Building personalities

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.

Eye on the prize

While horse track owners have a business case for converting to jai alai, voters in 2018 upended a similar proposition for dog track operators. Voters via constitutional amendment banned dog racing as of the end of this year. Dog track owners are allowed to keep their slots and card rooms without having to run dogs anymore. After this year, Magic City, since it had a dog track license, won’t have to put on jai alai to keep its casino open. (The Legislature is considering a similar decoupling at horse and jai alai venues.)

Savin, though, says it will continue as long as the players put in the effort. He says jai alai has been “mismarketed and mispackaged” and can make a comeback. The sport has appeal. Spectators sit quite close to players. The game is fast-paced and wagering turns over quickly. A horse race can be run about every half-hour; a jai alai game takes 10 minutes.

Magic City launches a YouTube channel this month to build player profiles and allow non-wagering fans to see games. Cigar City, owner of the Jai Alai beer brand, will sponsor a championship tournament this month. The field of 64 includes retired legends, current traditional players, some amateurs and the Magic City players. They will compete for $20,000 in prize money.

There’s another reason for Magic City to promote the sport. Magic City, through that quirk in state law Lockwood discovered, obtained one of the permits for a new fronton. It would be in Edgewater, the area along Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown. It’s controversial because the fronton, though it wouldn’t bring slots, would be the first gambling venue near downtown. It’s been the subject of litigation.

At Magic City, as the pace of practice picks up behind him, Savin says he hopes a share of the money formerly wagered on dogs in Florida makes it to the fronton.

“If we picked up 10% to 20% of the dog money, we would be a very profitable jai alai operation,” Savin says. “It’s a gamble. We won’t know for probably three more years if this was a worthwhile investment.”

jai alai (noun)

Pronounced Hi-LIE. It means “merry festival” in Basque. The name originated when the game was imported to Cuba in 1900.

How to Play

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. The opponent needs to be able to catch the ball before it hits the ground or after its first bounce and return it back to the wall.

Betting on jai alai is the same as betting on horse or dog racing. You can place a “win,” “place” or “show” bet on a player or team, or you can wager on who will be the top two finishers with a “quinella” bet. More complex wagers are possible.


Read more in Florida Trend's April issue.
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