Jai alai, from being America’s most profitable sport to disappearing

Last Sunday, hundreds of people gathered at the Dania Jai ​​Alai fronton in Dania Beach (Florida) to enjoy a day of basket tip in the United States. In an “intense” as well as “emotional” atmosphere, the last performance of the famous fronton took place. Biarritz player Manu Ladutxe will be remembered as the last winner of Dania Jai ​​Alai after beating seven opponents in the last pool in a festival that lasted about four hours. After the last game, the children of the players approached and handed each of them a ball signed by all the pelotaris as a symbol of farewell. 68 years after its opening, Dania Jai ​​Alai closed its doors forever on Sunday.

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The punta basket, or jai alai, as they call it in the United States, was one of the most profitable gambling businesses of the 20th century. The sport came to the American country through the waves of Basque immigrants who settled there. The presence of the Basque in the United States dates back to the arrival of Europeans to America, mainly in the southeast of the North American country, since “the Basques, like any other group, also participated in the undertaking of colonizing a large part of what is today known as the United States, “as Pedro Oiarzabal, a historian and specialist in the Basque diaspora, recounted. The time when there were “surely” the greatest number of people of Basque origin in the country lasted from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th century. “Until its independence, there were a large number of Basques in Cuba, being part of the Spanish empire. Many emigrated and did business on the east coast of the United States, particularly in Florida,” explains the historian. With the discovery of gold in California, Basque immigration reached the west coast, and from there, it spread to neighboring states, such as Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Oregon or Utah.

Where a group of people of Basque origin was concentrated, Basque pensions were established, which later became hotels. According to an article in the Auñamendi Encyclopedia written by Mariano Estornés and Gloria Pilar Totoricagüena, the first Basque hotel on record dates from 1850. The Basque hotel became an “institution” for the Basque-American population, who came to it to collect information or to be advised on bank accounts or “immigration matters.” Soon, hotels were, in addition to institutions, sociocultural centers, especially in the western part of the United States. “Some of them even had a fronton to play ball. This provided the young Basques who lived in the hotel, or in nearby towns, a form of recreation that they used to release energy,” the article explains. In addition to playing for fun, the hotels began to organize tournaments in which “the best players from the Basque communities” participated. At present, Oiarzabal assures, about 80% of the descendants of Basque immigrants reside in the west of the country.

However, where the jai alai business was most successful was in the state of Florida, probably due to gambling legislation, since “being linked to gambling, where gambling was not allowed, it did not expand.” The first fronton on the east coast was that of Hialeah, which was built in 1924 by two Cuban immigrants who bet on the punta basket. But that jai alai, the largest of all the fronton courts in the United States with a capacity of around 10,000 spectators, did not last long: in 1926 it was destroyed by a hurricane. It was replaced by the Miami Jai Alai, Florida’s only fronton court until the 1950s. The sport did not become popular until 1935, when gambling was legalized. From then on, new frontons began to be inaugurated. In 1953 Dania Jai ​​Alai opened its doors, the same one that put an end to his journey this Sunday. At the beginning of the 21st century, the new fronton had a maximum capacity of 12,500 spectators. One of the most popular moments for the sport was the 1970s with the arrival of Cuban immigrants who were fans of the Basque pelota game. In 1978, according to the Auñamendi Encyclopedia, there were ten frontons in Florida: Miami Jai Alai, Dania Jai ​​Alai, Tampa Jai ​​Alai, Palm Beach Jai Alai, Fort Pierce Jai Alai, Melbourne Jai Alai, Ocala Jai ​​Alai, Orlando Seminole Jai Alai , Daytona Beach Jai Alai and Big Bend Jai Alai.

The tip basket was so identified with the state that it was advertised as if it were practically originally from Florida

Mariano Estornés and Gloria Pilar Totoricagüena
Auñamendi Encyclopedia

In most Florida gables, the basket tip seasons typically lasted through the winter months. However, the Daytona Jai ​​Alai kept its doors open in the summer, so many of the pelotaris tried to continue playing there. They hosted matches and pools almost every day of the week. Specifically, the pelotaris played in Miami Jai Alai from Monday to Friday nights and Monday, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and Dania’s was open six days a week at night and on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at night. late. During the 1975 season, the jai alai managed to sell nearly five million tickets and the Miami fronton drew more than 15,500 spectators on December 27. Currently, the FTX Arena, the Miami Heats basketball court, has a capacity of 19,600 spectators. “The top basket was so identified with the state that it was advertised as if it were practically originally from Florida. Both professional and capable amateurs came out of the top basket school in the north of Miami,” say Estornés and Totoricagüena.

It was a goodbye night. The closing of a cycle. Not the end of the jai-alai. A modality like this cannot end even if it is the way the festival developed. In a big way. Apotheosis

‘Jai Alai News’

But the success of the top basket in Florida waned in the 1980s. In 1988, the pelotaris, grouped together in the IJAPA —International Jai Alai Players Association or International Association of Jai Alai Players—, decided to go on strike to ask for better Labor conditions. An envoy from the Basque Government and the Spanish consul in Miami visited the top basket ball players, who at the time numbered around 600 professionals around the world. At the end of it, three and a half years later, there were only about 200 left. “From then on the Pelotaris Association (IJAPA) practically disappeared and the relations between the players and managers entered a confrontational phase that negatively affected the image of the player. sport “, relates Alberto Prieto, professor at Rollins College, Florida, in an article published in the newspaper ‘Deia’. “They went from thousands of viewers to a few hundred,” explains another ‘Jai Alai News’ article. To this was added that at the same time the lottery was introduced in the state of Florida, so that the “competition for gambling money was much greater.” “The strike was brutal, by closing the frontons for so long, people look for other types of shows, people get disappointed. If interest is lost, people go to look for another show,” says Oiarzabal.

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The decline of the sport of Basque origin has not stopped since then. “The money that the businessman is going to invest in putting on a show of these characteristics, in which the ‘show’, the business and the sport are united, has to compete with other problems: with other types of games, the change of generation , betting in the digital world … Where are you going to get more money? Betting on a jai alai or horse racing or another game? “, underlines the specialist in the Basque diaspora. Little by little the Florida frontons were closing down until only two were left standing: Dania Jai ​​Alai and Magic City Jai Alai. The 28 pelotaris that made up Dania Jai ​​Alai’s professional team for the 2021-2022 season had a contract until the summer. But before the season started, the state of Florida reformed a law that until now protected frontons, although they had not been profitable for years due to the fall that gambling has suffered. The state casinos had to maintain the shows that were considered “traditional”, among which was the jai alai or horse racing, in order to do business with slot machines. Following the change in the law, Dania Beach Casino informed the pelotaris in September that the jai alai would close on November 28. The farewell lasted throughout the weekend, in which they distributed prizes, were exhibited in several games and let the feelings emerge. “It was a farewell night. The closing of a cycle. Not the end of the jai alai. A modality like this cannot end even in the way the festival developed. In a big way. Apotheosis”, narrates’ Jai Alai News’.

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