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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

“If I truly wanted to eliminate the sport, I would have already gotten rid of [it],” Catina says. “They make it sound like I’m blowing up the building. I’m just trying to make money.”

However, Orlando Jai Alai hasn’t announced a schedule of professional games for next season – orlandojaialai.com, notes that details of the next full season “have yet to be determined,” and there is no news posted under the site’s “latest news” tab. The facility has very limited hours available for the amateur players to use the court. It certainly doesn’t make it easy to be a jai alai fan in Orlando.

Craig is not one to shy away from the grim reality that his favorite sport may soon be an antiquity. “Jai alai is an old dog, and maybe it’s time to put it to sleep,” he says. “Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes because it has been such a major part of my life.”

There aren’t many jai alai fans left; there are even fewer as serious as Craig. In 2011, filmmaker Drew Blatman shot a short documentary at Orlando Jai Alai called A Night at the Jai Alai, which he published on the mobile-media network roopstigo.com earlier this year. When he was an undergrad at the University of Central Florida, Blatman says he was fascinated by the sport and its timelessness. Years later, while pursuing his master’s degree at Columbia University, Blatman decided to focus a student project on capturing Orlando Jai Alai in its current decrepit state.

“Here’s an odd little sport that you wouldn’t hear anything about on TV, except for in an episode of Mad Men,” Blatman says. “It feels like the sport is just holding on by a thread. My hope for the documentary is to make people aware of what is there and to take advantage of it before it’s gone. If youth programs turn more kids on to it, the sport would gain a new generation of fans.”

Blatman’s sad-but-accurate film could be the death knell for the sport as its fans like to remember it. It shows the sparse crowds that show up for professional games at Orlando Jai Alai, the cavernous emptiness of its hallways and the general lack of enthusiasm for jai alai by anyone but the players themselves.

Not even Birdoff can really take issue with it.

“I thought it was nicely done and very cinematic,” Birdoff says. “It’s not the greatest portrayal of Orlando Jai Alai, but [it] is a quality job.”

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