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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

“They said I was putting the last dagger into the sport,” Catina says. “During the most recent Citrus Tournament there was a lot of negativity because everyone thought it was going to be the last one. That negativity fell on me because I’m the one pushing for Orlando Live Events.”

Catina says the real dagger in Orlando Jai Alai’s fight to stay relevant was not being allowed to host live poker games. The Florida Statute that allowed jai alai frontons and dog tracks to open card rooms was intended to aid struggling frontons, but proof of a majority vote by local governments clearing the path for the card rooms is required for approval by the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Seminole County and Fern Park have yet to even vote on it.

“Everywhere else got it, and we didn’t,” Catina says. “State law says we are allowed to have poker with a county or municipality option. Neither the city nor the county will even vote to allow us to have it.”

Birdoff says that nearly all of the pari-mutuel facilities in Florida have card rooms: “Our facility and the dog track down the road are the only ones without them,” he says. “I don’t know why they won’t hold a vote.”

“At this point there will not be a vote,” says Sharon Peters of the Seminole County manager’s office. “The charter review commission met last year. There was nothing to bring up, so they didn’t vote and they don’t meet again for another six years.”

Card room or not, jai alai fans and ex-players are dissatisfied with RD Management’s handling of their sport, and they regularly express their frustration in lengthy conversation threads on Craig’s Merry Festival fan site, which has 538 members. Craig says that when fans complained, Orlando Jai Alai’s management faulted him for not supporting the sport he claims to love.

“There are so few fans left that any comment, statement or questioning of the way the sport has been handled makes you a target,” Craig says. “My site was created because I am a longtime fan and I want nothing more than to foster relationships. It doesn’t have to be contentious.”

There has also been much discussion on Merry Festival about what could save Orland Jai Alai, and the fans say it’s not live events or poker.

“It would be great if there was a way to disconnect [jai alai] from the pari-mutuel industry,” Craig says. “A big part of it is advertising and modernizing the sport. Then we could attract that younger college crowd.”

Catina doesn’t see that as a realistic option. “There is a small local fan base that wants the building to be flip-flopped so that everything is about jai alai and the rest of the business [is] secondary,” he says. “The business has to be first and jai alai has to be secondary. There’s still hope for jai alai, but the perception is we’re crushing it and pushing it out. I understand their passion for the sport, but business is business.”

Catina thinks the only hope for jai alai lies in the amateur program, in which Craig is an active player.

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