It has NASCAR’s speed and ultimate fighting’s potential for crippling injury, but few care that jai alai’s existence is hanging by a thread.
Granted, it doesn’t have NASCAR’s mind-numbing repetition. Nor does it provide viewers with the barbaric spectacle of overgrown toddlers beating the snot out of each other like macho schoolchildren with something to prove.
And perhaps that’s the problem … or, at least, one of them.
Jai alai, dubbed the fastest game on Earth, with its game ball (the pelotas) reaching speeds upward of 300 kilometres an hour, is on its way out. Only six jai alai frontons remain in the US, the hub of the game’s professional syndicate.
And only two, the Dania Jai-Alai and the Miami Jai-Alai, both located in the Florida, offer year-round competition. However, even they are falling under hard times, as spectators that once numbered as many as 15,000 between the ‘60s and ‘80s, have shrunken to a contingent small enough to fit on a school bus.
As this sport — that is like handball on steroids, with competitors using hand-held scoops to fire a rock hard, goatskin ball at wall — withers away, insiders and sports analysts are coughing up lots of reasons for its degradation. And to be honest, there’s truth in all of them.
Like Major League baseball, jai alai was hurt by a players strike that lasted three years in the late ‘80s, at the height of the sport’s popularity.
The late ‘80s also saw the introduction of NBA and Major League baseball teams in Florida, thereby siphoning off spectator interest.
However, the most rational explanation given is based in gambling.
Frontons have long been the ugly, little sister to racetracks, providing gamblers with a forum to place wagers — not just on jai alai, but in poker rooms and the like.
You know that gambling has become the purport of a sport when one of its top industry figures is murdered by mobsters, as is the case with World Jai Alai president Roger Wheeler Sr. Or, at least, it’s a sharp indication.
With a nearby Indian casino draining fronton patrons, the Dania has increased its poker room hours and the Miami joint is installing slot machines.
They should be trying to capture new fans of the sport, not new gamblers. Even a fronton with auspicious neon lights and a plumed showgirl standing in front won’t be able to beat the casinos at the gambling game. That’s their schtick.
The Dania and Miami’s further slide into the gambling sphere illustrates that even the owners of the Miami Jai-Alai are more concerned with money than with preserving the sport. Even a retarded rhesus monkey can see that alternative gambling forums are dissolving the sport’s support base. By adding a more gambling choices — although possibly increasing profit and thereby keeping the fronton open — that will only water down what little remaining support there is for jai alai.
There are, however, other reasons why popularity of the sport is trailing off that people don’t want to put down in print.
First, hardcore fans are simply dying off. So the obvious solution is to replace them. The problem is that very few professional jai alai players are American. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon or brain scientist to see that, when it comes to sport, Americans will cheer for Americans, just as Canadians will cheer for Canadians. So frontons need to get more American kids out, perhaps by making connections with local schools.
The other problem is that it seems stuffy, like polo minus the horses. The sport needs to appeal to lowbrow viewers.
Simply recruit some beerswilling, loudmouth spectators who cheer only for bone-snapping injuries, and the rest of redneck America will follow.