Long gone are the days of jai alai arenas drawing crowds of 15,000 plus. But even if the game doesn’t have the same allure, there’s no denying “the fastest moving ball sport in the world” is something every Floridian should experience at least once.
The origins of jai alai can be traced back as far as the 1700s. A variation of the game, called Basque pelota, spawned in Europe, particularly concentrated in Spain and France.
The game evolved and made its way into Latin America before finally being introduced to the United States in 1904 during the St. Louis World’s Fair.
In 1924, 20 years after its initial U.S. appearance, Florida’s first fronton opened at the site of the Hialeah Race Course before moving to its permanent home at Casino Miami just two years later.
The Miami Jai-Alai Fronton was nicknamed “The Yankee Stadium of Jai Alai” and was arguably the most well-known fronton in the country.
After renovations in the mid-1960s, the grandstand could comfortably house over 13,000 spectators. in December of 1975, a world record of 15,502 fans watched a game of jai alai there.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Florida eased its gambling laws and thus betting on the sport expanded. The trend continued in the 1980s, but with it came the decline of the sport.
Oddsmakers created intricate wagers that made it harder for the average fan to casually participate in.
The dress code was relaxed to draw in more spectators but had the effect of reducing the sports high-end appeal.
Then allegations of fixed games and ties to organized crime led to FBI investigations, which put a damper on fan enthusiasm.
If the gambling slide wasn’t enough, the players went on strike in 1988, demanding better pay and improved working conditions.
During the three-year strike, upper management, who was raking in millions, brought in amateur replacements that were labeled “scabs.”
With an inferior product on the court, attendance dwindled.
Recently, Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, known for documentaries like “Cocaine Cowboys” and “The U,” tried shining a light on this forgotten Florida pastime.
“Magic City Hustle” follows former University of Miami athletes, who in sports like football and baseball, trying to transform into jai alai players.
Though Corben told WLRN that the film is less about jai alai itself and more about the hustle of the industry, it’s at least putting the sport back in the spotlight.
Now that you’re up to speed on the history of jai alai in the Sunshine State, you’re probably wondering where you can catch a game. There are still two frontons with year-round matches: Casino Miami and The Casino @ Dania Beach.
The basic rules are as follows: A match takes place in an arena called a “fronton” with players on a court called a “cancha” that’s usually 176 feet long, 45 feet wide and has three walls. Played between two to four players, the goal is to hurl the ball called a “pelota” with a hand-held device called a “cesta” at one of the three walls in such a way that the opponent can’t catch or return it. The first to seven or nine points wins the game.
William is the Managing Editor at FloridaInsider.com. His years of experience in journalism, broadcasting and multimedia include roles as a Writer and Web Producer. He graduated from Florida International University with a Bachelor of Science and Communication.