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The Swift and the Dying

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The recent past has been less kind. In his weekly commentary on National Public Radio just before this past Thanksgiving, venerated Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford recounted the elements of sport that he most missed. Among the list was this line, which probably sounded like gibberish to most listeners under 40: "Jai alai. It was so exotic. What ever happened to jai alai?"

A couple of things happened to jai alai. The most drastic, and the easiest to blame, was a strike that lasted from 1988 to 1991, an eternity for a sports stoppage. Some players crossed picket lines to keep the show alive, but when the strike began, there were 14 frontons in Nevada, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Florida. Today, there are five, all in Florida, in Dania Beach, Miami, Orlando, Ocala, and Fort Pierce. (The 2004 hurricanes ripped the roofs off the frontons in Orlando and Fort Pierce, delaying the season of the former and canceling that of the latter.) The irony is, with fewer frontons, the talent is now concentrated, and rosters at the surviving venues are deeper than ever. "The play is pretty damned good now, but nobody cares," Klier says. "You could put a monkey out there."

The strike came amid escalating competition to attract sports fans and gamblers. In those years, the NBA expanded into downtown Miami with the Heat, and Major League Baseball expanded to north Miami-Dade County with the Marlins. The Seminoles opened a massive casino in Coconut Creek in 2000 and, last year, another even larger one in Hollywood.

Gambling (in whatever form) abides at Dania Jai-Alai, but it's shrinking. Over the past 20 years, the "handle," or overall amount wagered, has shriveled. The high came in fiscal 1986-87, when bettors wagered $88 million, leaving the fronton $11 million after taxes and payouts. In 1994, 1996, and 2000, Florida's legislature eased the tax burden on the house take, so the operating money hasn't dipped lower than $7.8 million since. But the handle keeps shrinking: From $87 million in '87-88 to $39 million last year. Only half of that total was wagered live; the rest came from other pari-mutuel venues (horse tracks, old frontons) around the country.

Those are the sort of trends that inspired New York Times reporter Geoffrey Gray, after a visit to Dania Beach last summer, to write of a game "flirting with extinction" in frontons that "feel like out-of-the-way bus stations."

It's not just the fans who are dwindling: American-born competitors may soon also become extinct. Klier's jai-alai alma mater, Miami Amateur Jai-Alai, no longer trains new players and has in the past couple of years closed two of its three courts. "Part of the problem is that jai alai is not an American game," says Royal Logan, the chief operations officer in the state office that regulates pari-mutuels. "There's not really a way to develop young players. Look how long it took soccer to catch on in the United States." The only Americans on the horizon are sons of fronton employees who were able to play from a young age. Now, frontons generally don't allow anyone but employees on the court, fearing crushed skulls and shattered teeth.

One bright spot is the renovated and well-attended poker room on the second floor in Dania Beach. The other, of course, is this past November's 50.7 percent-to-49.3 percent passage of Florida Amendment 4, which will allow Broward and Miami-Dade voters to choose in March whether to allow slot machines at pari-mutuels. The betting industry thus far has spent a reported $16 million promoting the move, and for obvious reasons: Supporters project as much as $2 billion in slot wagering the first year alone. Perhaps getting that many bodies through the doors will spark interest in dog racing, horseracing, and jai alai, all of which are in decline, though it seems a Faustian way to do it.

"People will bet on any damned thing," says Mack McElyea, a former Dania Beach mayor who worked at the fronton as a young man. "They'll bet on roaches running." The decline of the sport since Florida introduced the lottery suggests as much. Just as the possibility of a payout can prompt a man to curse the impartial physical poetry of a running horse, so do exacta boxes and quinella wheels make otherwise reasonable people lob invective through a chainlink fence.

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Sam Eifling
Contact: Sam Eifling

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