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Cover 07/10/2013

The fastest sport in the world is dying a slow death at Orlando Jai Alai

As facility rebrands itself as a multi-use venue, jai alai fans worry that this could be the end of their favorite pastime

Photo: Photos by Rob Bartlett, License: N/A

Photos by Rob Bartlett

Photo: , License: N/A

The Orlando Jai Alai fronton in Fern Park is a local landmark. The hulking relic with its giant teal lettering and sun-bleached facade looms in the distance over U.S. Highway 17-92. A half-lit neon sign coaxes people to come in for live jai alai and race-book betting on the horses. It’s a mysterious piece of old Florida, built in 1962 during the heyday of the sport of jai alai in the United States, that has a strange appeal when viewed from the roadway.

Its quirky allure quickly fades, though, when you drive through the rusted-open gates onto the cracked pavement of the parking lot. As you wander through the seemingly abandoned lobby, your footsteps echo in the empty corridors, past the closed concession stands and through the tunnel-like hallways leading to the grandstands and jai alai court (fronton), which usually sits unused and dark.

The only signs of life are the security guard stationed near the entrance and the sporadic trickle of retirees who come through the doors. But they aren’t here to watch jai alai. They’re here to gamble on the horses. They slowly make their way past the court to the escalators, which lead to the third-floor Race Book, where anyone over the age of 18 can bet on live simulcast horse races on more than 30 flat-screen TVs. Tellers help place bets, automated machines dispense winnings and concessions serve stadium fare. On the first floor, the Jai Horse Restaurant, which once was host to a Bonkerz Comedy Club, also broadcasts the races while serving a full dining menu.

There isn’t much jai alai – which translates to “merry festival” in Basque, where the sport originated – being played at Orlando Jai Alai at all these days. Once a major attraction for casual gamblers, the game – known as the “fastest in the world,” in which a ball (called a pelota) is flung and bounced, handball-like, across a three-walled court – is slowly dying off. The 176-foot-long, three-walled court at Orlando Jai Alai is rarely used, except by amateur players who gather for occasional matches. In order to keep its license to operate, the facility has to host 40 jai alai games – called “performances” by the state – per year.

Orlando Jai Alai is struggling to stay in business. The facility nearly closed in 2010, before it was sold to New York-based real estate developer RD Management, which also owns the Lowe’s next door to the jai alai fronton and Fern Creek Plaza up the street. The company is the driving force of a slow transformation of the facility from a monument to a fading era, in which jai alai games were so popular that the grandstands were often packed with excited fans, to a new kind of entertainment venue called Orlando Live Events. The management says Orlando Jai Alai will become a multipurpose venue that can host gambling, concerts and special events, as well as some jai alai games. But in the process of rebranding, it may be alienating the few jai alai fans left in the region.

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