Miami casino works to save beloved jai alai from extinction

US_Jai_Alai_47484 Coach Juan Ramon Arrasate, who played Jai Alai for two decades before transitioning to the role of coach 25 years ago, talks to some of his players between matches, in the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami.
US_Jai_Alai_31763 Benny Bueno, second left, a former Jai Alai player who oversees player operations for the now-closed Jai Alai fronton at The Casino at Dania Beach, talks with a press liaison and reporters in the area where players used to wait their turn to take the fronton, at The Casino at Dania Beach, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Dania Beach, Fla.
US_Jai_Alai_96391 Netting hangs between the court and specter seats to protect fans watching the fast-paced action on the Jai Alai fronton, at the now-closed court at The Casino at Dania Beach, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Dania Beach, Fla.
Miami_Jai_Alai_07526 An employee walks through the area where Jai Alai players would wait their turn to take the court, at the now-closed Jai Alai fronton at The Casino at Dania Beach, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Dania Beach, Fla.
US_Jai_Alai_41760 Kyle Kubala looks at the marks left by a cupping treatment administered by the Jai Alai fronton's trainer, as he recovers after playing several matches at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami.
US_Jai_Alai_83133 The Jai Alai locker room sits empty and unused at The Casino at Dania Beach's now-closed Jai Alai fronton, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Dania Beach, Fla.
US_Jai_Alai_83554 Dennis Dalton, known by the moniker "El Barba," Spanish for "The Beard," competes in a doubles Jai Alai match in the fronton at Magic City Casino, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's last stand is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_09238 Ben Gadsden, of the Rebote Renegades, tries unsuccessfully to return a ball from Tanard Davis, known as "Jeden," of the Cesta Cyclones, in their game of Battle Court Jai Alai at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami.
US_Jai_Alai_32697 Jean Gregory Melendo Ikeda jumps for a ball as players warm up for a singles match at the Jai Alai fronton at Magic City Casino, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_16703 Chris Bueno returns a ball in a Jai Alai match at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami.
US_Jai_Alai_57341 Players wait to run onto the court as competitors losing points run off, in a round robin format, during a singles Jai Alai match at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_58243 Players wait to run onto the court as competitors losing points come off in a round robin format, during a singles Jai Alai match at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_87458 Chris Bueno stretches ahead of the start of the afternoon's Jai Alai matches, at Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_57684 Jerseys of a previous season's Jai Alai doubles and singles winners are framed on a wall, in the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_88912 Jai Alai fans watch matches from courtside seats at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_79156 Jerseys in different colors and numbers for the various matches rest alongside wicker cestas, or baskets, on a player's couch at the Jai Alai fronton at Magic City Casino, Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, in Miami.
US_Jai_Alai_04536 Chris Bueno, left, relaxes as Darryll Roque, known as "Tennessee" stretches, as they prepare for the afternoon's first Jai Alai match at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami. What could be Jai Alai's curtain call is taking place at Magic City Casino, where a small group of committed enthusiasts are doing all they can to save the game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of of the 1970s and 1980s.
US_Jai_Alai_66802 Benny Bueno, a former Jai Alai player who oversees player operations for the now-closed Jai Alai fronton at The Casino at Dania Beach, takes out one of the traditional goatskin balls that had been used for play until the fronton closed, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022, in Dania Beach, Fla. To speed up the action, Magic City Casino, the last place the game is played as a professional sport, has reduced the traditional fronton by nearly 60 feet (18 meters) and replaced the goatskin ball, as hard as a hockey puck, with a bouncier pelota that ricochets against plexiglass instead of the traditional granite wall.
US_Jai_Alai_29002 Michael Diaz walks off the court after losing a point, as other competitors wait to go on according to the round robin format in a Jai Alai singles match at the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami.
US_Jai_Alai_61722 Fans watch as the Cesta Cyclones team is introduced at the start of their Battle Court head-to-head format Jai Alai match against the Rebote Renegades, in the Magic City Casino fronton, Sunday, March 13, 2022, in Miami.
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MIAMI (AP) — The world’s fastest ball sport has been dying a slow death for decades.

Now, a group of committed enthusiasts is doing all it can to save jai alai, a game that originated in the Basque region of Spain and France but took root in Miami during the go-go days of the 1970s and ’80s.

What could be jai alai’s curtain call is playing out at Magic City Casino, the last place the game is played as a professional sport. Gone are the celebrities like Paul Newman and John Travolta who used to crowd into sweaty, smoke-filled grandstands on a Saturday night to watch elite athletes fling a goatskin ball called a pelota in a three-walled fronton, or court, at 130 mph (210 km/h).

Instead, just a few dozen family members and die-hard fans turned out for a recent match. Live wagering, which long drove the sport, has dried up in the era of YouTube and online gambling. And many of the game’s top players who used to make the journey across the Atlantic have hung up their wicker cestas — curved baskets for catching and throwing — leaving a void that a roster of local, homegrown talent is hard-pressed to fill.

But the one advantage of having fallen so far is that the only direction left to go is up.

“We’re pretty confident there’s a future,” said Scott Savin, the chief operating officer of Magic City. “At least there’s a present, so that means we have a fighting chance at a future.”

The fate of the sport depends on the shoulders — and overextended rotator cuffs — of Magic City’s roster of 28 athletes. Seven of them — from Spain, France and the Philippines — were hired after a nearby fronton at The Casino at Dania Beach Casino ended its seven-decade run last year.

One of the foreign players, Inaki Goitiandia, took up the sport at age 10. Jai alai was a favorite pastime growing up in the small town of Markina-Xemein in northern Spain. But as an adult, he and his brother Julen followed their father and grandfather’s footsteps to Miami, which for decades was a magnet for the game’s top talent.

“This is the only place where you can make a living playing jai alai,” Goitiandia said, wiping his brow after winning an exhausting round-robin doubles match.

The remaining players are former high school and college athletes who learned the game as adults and still struggle with basics like catching the ball.

Tanard Davis, who was signed by the Indianapolis Colts after playing football at University of Miami, saw his NFL career fizzle and moved to Atlanta to pursue a career in law enforcement. In 2018, he was among the Hurricanes alumni who answered an email blast looking for volunteers from Magic City’s owners, the Havenick family, who are also major donors to UM athletics.

Davis is grateful for the opportunity to put on a uniform and get the adrenaline flowing again.

“It’s like a high school basketball player facing off against Lebron James,” said Davis, who at 39 is one of the oldest but most physically fit players. “I don’t stand a chance in the long run, but I want to play as hard as I can.”

To speed up the sport, Magic City has reduced the traditional fronton by nearly 60 feet (18 meters) and replaced the goatskin ball — as hard as a hockey puck — with a bouncier pelota that ricochets against plexiglass instead of the traditional granite wall. Magic City is also experimenting with the rules, creating so-called Battle Court matches resembling head-to-head singles tennis.

The goal is to reach younger, online bettors for whom win-place-show wagering is a bygone era. Content deals on free, advertising-supported platforms means games are reaching a potential audience of 115 million households and Magic City has teamed with platform BetRivers for online betting in seven states.

Want your own sports franchise? Sponsoring a team with catchy names like the Wall Warriors and Cesta Cyclones costs $100,000 — a bargain, Savin said, for a niche sport whose natural fan base is somewhere between the WNBA and Canadian football.

“It’s crawl, walk, run — but I think we got past crawl,” he said.

The first jai alai fronton in the U.S. was built in St. Louis, for the 1904 World’s Fair, and in its heyday the game was played in several states. But it was always strongest in Florida, where pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, greyhounds and jai alai has been legal since the 1930s, and especially Miami.

Its long decline began in the 1980s, when Florida authorized the lottery. A players’ strike lasting more than two years followed. And competition from federally protected Indian reservations has taken a toll.

In what appeared to be the death knell for the game, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a deal last year giving the Seminole tribe, which already runs the state’s biggest casinos, a monopoly over online sports betting. To level the playing field, casinos are no longer required to carry costly pari-mutuel sports in exchange for being allowed to offer slot machines and poker.

Benny Bueno, a former jai alai player who oversees player operations at The Casino at Dania Beach, attributes the decline to the sport’s antiquated betting model, with casinos relying on live audiences to drive profits.

He hopes jai alai can make a comeback on simpler, if less lucrative, grounds. Less than a year after hosting its final regulation game, Dania Beach will hold a 10-day exhibition tournament starting Friday, called Battle at the Palace, that he hopes will revive a full-fledged season there in time for the fronton’s 70th anniversary in December.

Bueno said the outpouring of support from fans saddened to see part of South Florida’s rich history die pushed the casino’s owners to give it another try.

Meanwhile, Bueno’s son is doing his best to keep the game alive at Magic City. Chris Bueno pursued sports like baseball and basketball as a kid and only tried his hand at jai alai at the age of 27, while working as a supervisor at UPS.

“Like my dad always says: Everyone loves jai alai — some people just don’t know it yet,” the younger Bueno said.

___

Follow Goodman on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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