Published: March 31, 2022

Jai Alai Hasn’t Been Hot Since ‘Miami Vice’ Days. A Florida Casino Wants to Change That.

MIAMI— Michael Carballo used to play center field in the minor leagues for the Chicago White Sox. Now, three times a week, he dons a helmet, straps a basket-like contraption to his arm and rifles a plastic ball at a wall at up to 150 miles an hour as one of 28 players in the last remaining professional jai alai league in the U.S.

Mr. Carballo, who is 30 years old, works by day as a financial adviser. As a relative newcomer to the sport, he said, he plays all out. Veterans “do certain things fundamentally better….I’m just some dude off the street who happens to be athletic.”

Miami’s Magic City Casino hopes Mr. Carballo and his fellow players will save jai alai from extinction in the U.S. The crew includes longtime jai alai players from the Basque region of Spain and France, where the sport originated, recruits from Mexico and the Philippines, and, in a 21st-century twist, former professional baseball and football players from the U.S.

Dubbed the world’s fastest ball sport, jai alai involves players hurling and catching a pelota with a cesta on a three-walled court. The idea is throw the ball off the wall in such a way that the opposing player is unable to retrieve it on one bounce or less, loosely akin to a game of squash. The game had its American heyday in the 1970s and 1980s when it packed thousands of fans in arenas called frontons in Florida, Connecticut and other states to bet on matches as they drank and smoked. 

Then more entertainment and legal gambling options appeared, including the Florida state lottery in 1988. Jai alai players went on strike from 1988 to 1991—the longest in U.S. professional sports history. The sport went into a long tailspin. Although it still had a following in Basque country and in Mexico, spectators in the U.S. dwindled to just a few dozen a game.

Magic City’s latest bid to revive the game is Battle Court, a new league launched last month. Gone is the traditional round-robin style of play that baffled new viewers. Four teams compete in a tennis-style format—singles and doubles matches, two out of three sets to win. Bettors can wager on matches, sets and points.

Such changes, made by Magic City Chief Operating Officer Scott Savin, have sent jai alai purists into a tizzy. They include shrinking the size of the court to make the game faster and replacing granite walls with glass ones in the front and rear so online viewers can see the pelota streaking toward them.

“Everything we did was met with, ‘You’re ruining the game,’ ” from fervent fans, said Mr. Savin. “And I’m like, ‘There’s no game left to ruin.’ ”

When Magic City decided in 2017 to switch its betting sport from dog racing—a target of animal-rights activists—to jai alai, Mr. Savin hatched the idea of recruiting former college athletes, many from the University of Miami, and teaching them to play.

When Stuart Neiman, Magic City’s director of jai alai operations, first saw the new recruits strapping on cestas and awkwardly swinging them, he worried someone was going to get smashed by an errant ball or basket. “It’ll never work,” he recalled telling a Magic City executive. “They’re going to kill each other out there.”

Tanard Davis, a 39-year-old former professional football player and one of the early recruits for the 2018 debut season, remembered jai alai from growing up in Miami. “I thought it was crazy,” he said. “Guys bouncing off walls….I used to call the cesta a banana catcher.”

Early on, he wondered what he had gotten himself into. He and his fellow rookies during their first season struggled to throw and catch with the cesta. They couldn’t serve well. They bungled rebotes, shots after the ball rebounds off the back wall.

“I’m not going to lie—it was a laughingstock,” Mr. Davis said.

But Magic City kept recruiting, and the newcomers got better. Among them were Matthew and Ben Langhans, brothers and former baseball stars from Connecticut who took up the sport in recent years. Last year, Matthew won a singles title at a national jai alai championship held at Magic City, and he and his brother captured the doubles title. 

This season, the league has eight new experienced players, many of them from the Basque country.

Julen Goitiandia, 25, grew up playing jai alai in Markina-Xemein in Spain, and his father and grandfather competed in the sport in the U.S. He emigrated in 2020 and last year joined Magic City.

It took a while for him to get used to the American players. “They are like, ‘Rrrr,’ super enthusiastic, aggressive,” Mr. Goitiandia said. “They play 100% all the time….I’m more calm.”

The differences, players said, extend to behavior on the bench: The Basque players mostly keep quiet; the Americans trash talk. 

“We added the swag,” said Chris Bueno, a 33-year-old Miami native whose father played jai alai and appeared in a 1980s “Miami Vice” episode featuring the sport. “It’s kind of a culture shock for some of these guys.”

Brian Kern, 34, attended a jai alai match for the first time at Magic City on a recent Sunday evening. It had been on his list of things to do in Miami for years. After hearing that a fronton in nearby Dania Beach closed last year, he figured he should hurry.

He said he was expecting the kind of crowd he might once have seen at a dog track. “I was hoping to see some really old tan guys with gold necklaces,” he said. But the audience was sparse. He enjoyed the fast-paced play and $5 beers. “I’ll be back next Sunday,” he said.

Mr. Savin is hoping to draw bigger audiences through new content-distribution deals with media platforms to stream games. An arrangement with the sports-betting website BetRivers allows wagering on jai alai matches in seven states, providing potential new revenue for the casino, which has yet to turn a profit on jai alai.

Mr. Savin noted that online bettors have flocked to the obscure sport of Russian table tennis over the past few years. “If Russian ping pong is doing that well,” he said, “then there’s definitely a market for jai alai.”

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