It will probably happen again at Thursday’s opening night for Dania Beach Jai Alai. One of the fans in attendance will have a flashback to the glory days of the world’s fastest ball sport. That person will walk up and ask Benny Bueno when he plans to get back on the fronton to whip out one of his trademark serves.
“I get it all the time,” Bueno said. “I walk through the crowd and somebody will say, ‘Hey you were great, I loved watching you play. Why don’t you still play?’ Well, I’m 58 years old. I’m not in playing shape. This is a young man’s game.”
Considering Bueno began his playing career in 1981 and ended it in 2005, that question gets to the heart of where jai alai stands these days among a crowded field of sporting events that people can bet on: just hanging on, struggling to advance beyond the nostalgia stage.
Bueno, now the jai alai operations manager at Dania Beach, is among a tiny group of people trying to grow the sport in the U.S. while being mindful that the first step is just keeping it alive.
Latest tournament lasts two months
The Dania Beach tournament starting Thursday night stretches to the final days of January and gives fans a more-traditional format than the one played down the road at Magic City Casino, which relaunched the sport on U.S. shores five years ago by making it more approachable to sports bettors. Those are the only two active frontons in the U.S. for a sport that emerged from the Basque region on the Spanish-French border hundreds of years ago and once was a fixture on the parimutuel scene in Florida and pockets of the Northeast.
Bueno was busy with last-minute preparations Wednesday morning. During a 20-minute telephone conversation, he had to pause once to answer a text from the human resources department about on-boarding a couple of new hires and once to discuss final details with one of the officials. He promised the man he would find him a whistle in time for Thursday’s games.
“It’s like being a wedding planner,” Bueno said. “The event is planned, everything seems to be in place, but until everyone’s here and it’s in motion, then I can finally breathe.”’
Bueno said the South Florida casino is expecting an average of 200 fans for the matches at a fronton (or court) that holds 480, plus an additional 120 or so watching live on Youtube. Others will be able to watch and wager on it at parimutuel locations – mostly racetracks and off-track-betting parlors – scattered around Florida and Connecticut.
That’s a far cry from those 1980s glory days, when Bueno was still sliding on a cesta, the basket used to hurl balls at speeds up to 180 miles per hour. But it’s a start, and Bueno said the casino already has begun planning for another two-month tournament in 2023. Neither Dania Beach nor Magic City has yet to make a profit on the sport, but both are seeing enough forward motion to continue pushing to revive it.
Dania offers more traditional format
Miami native Robert Gorman, 69, said he first fell in love with the sport back in the early 1970s when he attended matches at both Dania and Magic City, even going so far as to learn how to play. He said he read about the revival at Magic City and decided to attend a match earlier this month.
He was annoyed at the changes in format – including making it head-to-head so it’s easier for sports bettors to wager on remotely – and didn’t think the quality of play was close to the glory days, but still found himself caught up.
“All that said, the atmosphere was fantastic,” Gorman said. “The crowd was really into it.”
Dania Beach’s matches will more fully satisfy traditionalists since they’re still being offered in the win-place-show-trifecta format of parimutuel betting and the fronton is regulation size. If a player is whistled for an overserve, they won’t get a second serve, as they do at Magic City.
In that sense, Dania Beach is the control group to Scott Savin’s experiment of reshaping the sport to fit more conveniently on a screen and to grab more bettors through Magic City’s partnership with BetRivers. But Bueno said Dania Beach has made some adjustments to try to draw younger crowds. For one thing, he eschewed some of the veteran players who wanted to return from last year’s tournament in order to sign 14 players between the ages of 18 and 26 from France and Spain.
“We wanted to bring in some younger, fresh faces so it doesn’t get stale and it’s a little different every time,” Bueno said. “They’ve a very physically fit and enthusiastic group of players. I think it’s going to be exciting for the audience and the betting crowd.”
Another test for the viability of jai alai in the U.S. gets underway Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Dania Beach Casino. The finals begin on Jan. 26. After that, the next step for jai alai is anyone’s guess.
Photo courtesy of Dania Beach Casino