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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

Altamonte Springs native Rob Craig grew up across the street from Orlando Jai Alai, and the sport made a huge impression on him. He’s a self-described jai alai fanatic, an amateur player, and the creator of the jai alai fan social network, merryfestival.com. He may be one of the sport’s most vocal supporters, despite its decline in popularity.

“At the age of 41, I still feel like a little kid every time I drive into the parking lot because I know I’m going to watch and play my favorite sport,” he says. “I know that if other people were exposed to it, they would feel the same.”

Craig got hooked on jai alai at an early age. “In high school, a buddy asked me, ‘Hey, you want to bring some money and see the world’s fastest game and maybe have a chance to win a few hundred dollars?’” he recalls. “That was over 20 years ago, when Orlando had an amazing roster. I was fascinated by the speed and grace of the sport, and decent money was being wagered at the time.”

When jai alai was at the peak of its popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, there were frontons hosting games in Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Las Vegas. People flocked to place bets on the games because access to gambling was far more limited than it is now: During jai alai’s glory days there were no gambling cruises, Indian casinos, digital slot machines or online gambling sites. There wasn’t even a state lottery in Florida until 1988. Jai alai was, basically, the only game in town.

In the 1980s, though, the state introduced the lottery, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 opened the door to expanding gambling on reservations across the nation. Reservations in Florida, which had mostly limited their gambling to bingo halls, introduced casinos, and so-called “cruises to nowhere” – ships that shuttled people far enough offshore that they could legally gamble on board for an evening – started doing business in the state in the 1980s as well. In a 2004 report to the state Senate on “Legalized Gambling in Florida – the Competition in the Marketplace,” the state’s Committee on Regulated Industries noted that due to an increase in new gambling opportunities, attendance at all pari-mutuel betting facilities in Florida dropped significantly over a 20-year period: Between 1980 and ’81, roughly 18 million people flocked to the state’s dog tracks, jai alai frontons and other pari-mutuels, down to about 2 million between 2002 and ’03.

“It used to be more exciting,” Orlando Jai Alai’s general manager, David Catina, concedes. “People would come dressed up. There were crowds and valet parking. And I’m told what I saw is miniscule compared to how it was before I got here in 1997.”

In addition to the increased competition, a player’s strike in 1988 may have been the final blow for jai alai in the United States – the strike was acrimonious and lasted for almost three years, and by the time it ended, many fans were bitter. Games were also plagued by cheating scandals, leading some to believe the games were fixed. The sport never really recovered, and it has been struggling to maintain a reliable fan base ever since. One of the problems, Craig says, is that by the time players were back on the courts, people had moved on and jai alai had a lot of catching up to do.

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