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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

“Jai alai really missed the boat,” Craig says. “It never put itself out there to be recognized. It never took the time to modernize like mainstream sports and the fan from yesteryear moved on.”

Efforts have been made to salvage what’s left of jai alai in the state. There are six frontons operating in Florida currently – in Miami, Ocala, Orlando, Dania, Fort Pierce and Hamilton – and the state has permitted them to offer other forms of gambling besides jai alai to help them stay afloat. They do have to maintain some jai alai in order to keep their licenses as pari-mutuel betting parlors, but the state has even allowed some laxity there. It passed a bill that allowed frontons to open card rooms if their local municipalities allowed it (Seminole County, where Orlando Jai Alai is located, does not). It also reduced the number of games some frontons were required to perform per year to maintain an operating license from 100 to 40, if the facility met certain criteria. Less focus on jai alai meant more focus on other moneymaking opportunities for operators. In Orlando Jai Alai’s case, that means not just gambling, but also live shows and other kinds of entertainment.

“We were told to be patient; things were headed in the right direction but jai alai wasn’t going to succeed without supplemental offerings and entertainment like concerts and wrestling,” Craig says.

Orlando Jai Alai’s initial entertainment venture was not as successful as expected.

“When RD took over, we tried to run concerts,” Catina recalls. “We had Southside Johnny, Lee Ann Womack, a few Last Comic Standing comedians and America’s Got Talent acts. Those shows were to give us an alternative revenue source. The larger shows didn’t work as well as we expected.

With the smaller shows, we barely broke even. It wasn’t working.” Undeterred, Catina and his boss, Richard Birdoff, president of RD Management, the company that owns Orlando Jai Alai, are moving forward with plans to transform their building into a multipurpose venue. There’s already a new website up at orlandolivevents.com, advertising the space for business meetings and showing the jai alai court set up with vendors and tables for a consignment sale. It offers the six-acre parking lot as fairgrounds that can be used for block parties or outdoor concerts.

“I see the facility for the purposes of entertainment with jai alai being part of it,” Birdoff says. “We are in the planning phase of rebranding the facility. We will be changing its name, making improvements and upgrades to the building so we can hold concerts regularly, and announcing a full jai alai season soon, just as we said we would.”

“We are getting quotes to change the signage on the building and on 17-92 to say ‘Orlando Live Events, home of Orlando Jai Alai,’” Catina says, though he doesn’t mention a full jai alai season in his vision of Orlando Live Events: “Jai alai will be an event we host once or twice a year,” he says. He assures that those games will include the annual Citrus Tournament, which takes place each January and is one of the few tournaments that still draws a significant crowd. That’s something of a sore spot between Catina and local jai alai fans – he endured accusations of actively perpetuating the event’s lack of popularity during this year’s tournament.

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