The Orlando Jai Alai fronton in Fern Park is a local landmark. The hulking relic with its giant teal lettering and sun-bleached facade looms in the distance over U.S. Highway 17-92. A half-lit neon sign coaxes people to come in for live jai alai and race-book betting on the horses. It’s a mysterious piece of old Florida, built in 1962 during the heyday of the sport of jai alai in the United States, that has a strange appeal when viewed from the roadway.
Its quirky allure quickly fades, though, when you drive through the rusted-open gates onto the cracked pavement of the parking lot. As you wander through the seemingly abandoned lobby, your footsteps echo in the empty corridors, past the closed concession stands and through the tunnel-like hallways leading to the grandstands and jai alai court (fronton), which usually sits unused and dark.
The only signs of life are the security guard stationed near the entrance and the sporadic trickle of retirees who come through the doors. But they aren’t here to watch jai alai. They’re here to gamble on the horses. They slowly make their way past the court to the escalators, which lead to the third-floor Race Book, where anyone over the age of 18 can bet on live simulcast horse races on more than 30 flat-screen TVs. Tellers help place bets, automated machines dispense winnings and concessions serve stadium fare. On the first floor, the Jai Horse Restaurant, which once was host to a Bonkerz Comedy Club, also broadcasts the races while serving a full dining menu.
There isn’t much jai alai – which translates to “merry festival” in Basque, where the sport originated – being played at Orlando Jai Alai at all these days. Once a major attraction for casual gamblers, the game – known as the “fastest in the world,” in which a ball (called a pelota) is flung and bounced, handball-like, across a three-walled court – is slowly dying off. The 176-foot-long, three-walled court at Orlando Jai Alai is rarely used, except by amateur players who gather for occasional matches. In order to keep its license to operate, the facility has to host 40 jai alai games – called “performances” by the state – per year.
Orlando Jai Alai is struggling to stay in business. The facility nearly closed in 2010, before it was sold to New York-based real estate developer RD Management, which also owns the Lowe’s next door to the jai alai fronton and Fern Creek Plaza up the street. The company is the driving force of a slow transformation of the facility from a monument to a fading era, in which jai alai games were so popular that the grandstands were often packed with excited fans, to a new kind of entertainment venue called Orlando Live Events. The management says Orlando Jai Alai will become a multipurpose venue that can host gambling, concerts and special events, as well as some jai alai games. But in the process of rebranding, it may be alienating the few jai alai fans left in the region.
Altamonte Springs native Rob Craig grew up across the street from Orlando Jai Alai, and the sport made a huge impression on him. He’s a self-described jai alai fanatic, an amateur player, and the creator of the jai alai fan social network, merryfestival.com. He may be one of the sport’s most vocal supporters, despite its decline in popularity.
“At the age of 41, I still feel like a little kid every time I drive into the parking lot because I know I’m going to watch and play my favorite sport,” he says. “I know that if other people were exposed to it, they would feel the same.”
Craig got hooked on jai alai at an early age. “In high school, a buddy asked me, ‘Hey, you want to bring some money and see the world’s fastest game and maybe have a chance to win a few hundred dollars?’” he recalls. “That was over 20 years ago, when Orlando had an amazing roster. I was fascinated by the speed and grace of the sport, and decent money was being wagered at the time.”
When jai alai was at the peak of its popularity in the 1960s and ’70s, there were frontons hosting games in Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Las Vegas. People flocked to place bets on the games because access to gambling was far more limited than it is now: During jai alai’s glory days there were no gambling cruises, Indian casinos, digital slot machines or online gambling sites. There wasn’t even a state lottery in Florida until 1988. Jai alai was, basically, the only game in town.
In the 1980s, though, the state introduced the lottery, and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988 opened the door to expanding gambling on reservations across the nation. Reservations in Florida, which had mostly limited their gambling to bingo halls, introduced casinos, and so-called “cruises to nowhere” – ships that shuttled people far enough offshore that they could legally gamble on board for an evening – started doing business in the state in the 1980s as well. In a 2004 report to the state Senate on “Legalized Gambling in Florida – the Competition in the Marketplace,” the state’s Committee on Regulated Industries noted that due to an increase in new gambling opportunities, attendance at all pari-mutuel betting facilities in Florida dropped significantly over a 20-year period: Between 1980 and ’81, roughly 18 million people flocked to the state’s dog tracks, jai alai frontons and other pari-mutuels, down to about 2 million between 2002 and ’03.
“It used to be more exciting,” Orlando Jai Alai’s general manager, David Catina, concedes. “People would come dressed up. There were crowds and valet parking. And I’m told what I saw is miniscule compared to how it was before I got here in 1997.”
In addition to the increased competition, a player’s strike in 1988 may have been the final blow for jai alai in the United States – the strike was acrimonious and lasted for almost three years, and by the time it ended, many fans were bitter. Games were also plagued by cheating scandals, leading some to believe the games were fixed. The sport never really recovered, and it has been struggling to maintain a reliable fan base ever since. One of the problems, Craig says, is that by the time players were back on the courts, people had moved on and jai alai had a lot of catching up to do.
“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.
“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.
“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.”