Jai Alai At Another Crossroads As Battle Court Playoffs Begin

jai alai team

Jon Zulaica hails from the European jai alai aristocracy.

Born in the cradle of the four-centuries-old sport in the coastal Basque town of San Sebastian, he first picked up a cesta — the wicker basket used to hurl the ball at tremendous speeds — at the age of 7, prompting his father Juan Inazio to enroll him at the famous San Sebastian Jai Alai School. Juan Inazio Zulaica and Jesus Zulaica, Jon’s uncle, played professional jai alai for decades, both in Europe and during the sport’s heyday in Florida and Connecticut in the 1980s.

Jesus Zulaica, tweaking the spelling of his surname, played under the name “Zulaika.” Juan Inazio played under the name “Zulaika 2.” Jon Zulaica simply plays as “Zulaika” since there are no other active players using that name these days.

Juan Inazio Zulaica also is considered one of the leading experts on the niche sport globally, opining on various jai alai developments on his Spanish-language blog. He advises his son, who is known for his wicked two-wall kill shots, on the state of his game by watching the streams of his World Jai Alai League matches back home on the shores of the Bay of Biscay.

So, take it from this highly connected jai alai family: The action taking place at Magic City Casino in Miami heading into the playoffs of its Battle Court season is among the best played anywhere on Earth these days.

“I would say it’s at the very top,” Jon Zulaica said.

Playoffs beginning soon

As the sport continues its long recovery from the brink of irrelevance, jai alai reaches a new marker in the coming weeks. Magic City’s glass-walled fronton is hosting the final weeks of its spring Battle Court season, with teams such as Zulaika’s Miami Chargers fiercely competing to make the playoffs that end in the May 12 championship match. The Chargers play the Cesta Cyclones in one playoff match on May 1.

The championship will be the culmination of a 13-week season that has been streamed on ESPN3 and has continued the sport’s resurgence. At least, that’s what the Miami casino is hoping now that it brands its jai alai matches under the rubric of the World Jai Alai League. Later this summer, Magic City will host a U.S. championship as well as a tournament that will bring the best players from all over the world to Little Havana in August.

“It’s been a thrilling ride to watch these teams compete over the past 10 weeks,” said Scott Savin, CEO of the World Jai Alai League. “Weekly, these teams have brought their best, but the season is still in play and these final weeks will be nail-biters as we watch these pelotaris battle it out for their spot on May 12.”

Even as Magic City plotted to re-energize the foundering sport over the past five years after it reached the brink of extinction on U.S. soil, some purists have scoffed at the rule changes Savin and his team made to make the sport more TV-friendly and more accessible to sports bettors in 12 states, Mexico, and Ontario. Bettors may wager on World Jai Alai League action through the BetRivers app while Savin continues to try to cut deals with other sportsbook operators.

Juan Inazio Zulaica, in an interview with the Basque Tribune, once referred to Magic City’s efforts thusly: “Some may cite the new Magic City modality in Miami with glass-enclosed space, but that is another thing.”

The adaptations Savin made are all aimed at making the sport more popular with young people, something of a challenge when the average age for fans attending live matches at the South Florida casino remains north of 45. The casino tracks social media engagement and has said the sport continues to draw more and more eyeballs on the streams.

Promotional materials spell it all out

“The World Jai Alai League is dedicated to revamping the once renowned sport of jai alai across the globe by modernizing gameplay, capitalizing on the exploding international sports wagering market, and delivering the sport through social media to a new generation of fans,” the release states.

Apparently, even those purists have taken note. Jai alai traces its origins back to the 17th century along the Spanish-French border before emigrating to Madrid and, eventually, the world. No longer pegged as rigidly to parimutuel wagering in Florida, the sport is in a good place to push forward, but also always one false step from going back into decline.

“It’s very interesting what Scott and his group are doing for jai alai. They are putting the sport as the centerpiece,” Jon Zulaica said. “It was played for many years as a betting option along with horse racing and dog racing. Now, it’s just jai alai, pure jai alai, and that’s what I like the most. We compete and play for the game. It’s fantastic.”

Photo courtesy of Magic City Casino

Author: Ryan Gonzales