A spaceship travels from a planet. In one of its stopovers, an astronaut joins as a crew member to continue this journey whose destiny is to colonize and implement a lifestyle on another planet.
His case is peculiar. He worked for nearly 20 years at the World Jai-Alai in management positions. After a lapse of 5 years, he returned to the world of jai-alai, not the traditional one, but another one that aims to challenge the established order.
His name is Stu Neiman, he is 53 years old and for the past five years he has been the Director of Jai-Alai Operations at Magic City. Scott Savin, CEO of MC, described him as “The Voice of Jai-Alai”.
His connection with jai-alai goes back a long way. Since he was three years old. His father, a Miami Jai-Alai regular and amateur practitioner, would invite some players: Randy, Romo and Gonzalez to his home. While they played pinball and smoked a joint, little Stu slept in the next room. Romo and Randy would reach out to apologize 30 years later.
When he was 5 or 6 years old, he would go with his father to the «canchitas» at Orbea´s and North Miami and began to mess around with the cesta.
He admits that as a pelotari he was not very competitive, he was more of a posturitas player. Aparicio would tell him: «you for the photos, not for the videos».
He was at boarding school in Connecticut and then studied medicine for two years until he dropped out in 1991.
His grandfather was adamant: «don’t even think of playing Jai-Alai.
Three years before his father played in West Palm Beach and became the oldest scab of all.
Stu was unaware of the conflict until he met Rafael Anchia, now a member of the Texas House of Representatives.
Stu, a national debate champion from 1986-1987, met Anchia in a debate and had him as an opponent. He was very aggressive with him.
They later met at a jai-lai tournament in Dania, which he won with Hernandez.
«What are you doing here?» were my words upon seeing him.
On one occasion, Stu remarked to Anchia, «Why don’t we go to Miami Jai-Alai to watch quinielas?”
«I don’t cross the picket line.»
It was at that moment that Stu Neiman became aware of what was happening.
After dropping out of school, he needed a job. He went to the «canchitas» of North Miami and went to work sewing balls.
«I sewed horribly.
He combined this job with another at a psychiatric center.
«In the future, at World Jai-alai, it helped me a lot in dealing with people,» she laughs heartily.
When Miami Jai-Alai needed someone for a job, they would call Howie, who was in charge of the courts.
«Hey, Stu, you want to work as an announcer at Miami Jai-Alai?»
That’s where he started his career at the jai-alai, holding different positions, announcer, assistant manager with Licciardi, Collet… being single he roamed around. He had to deal with the closure of Tampa, in 1998, already as general manager.
Difficult times. He was forced to cut up the roster, sending some players to Miami, others to Ocala or Fort Pierce.
«More than one will not be happy to see me when I visit the Basque Country,» he smiles.
At the age of 44, fired by Jonas (general manager in Miami, responsible for closing Miami and Fort Pierce), Stu went to work loading and unloading luggage at the Fort Lauderdale airport; his first and only physical job.
Happy months until a shoulder injury as a result of moving pounds of luggage forced him to quit.
It was 2018 and again —a year before Dan Licciardi, who had been working with Scott Savin and with West Flagler, called Stu and asked if he would be interested in joining the new project. Stu refused because his background was in traditional jai-alai. He just coul not understand training players from scratch and expecting them to play in six months. He saw something that didn’t want to be associated with because it didn’t understand it—, he landed on the little courts of North Miami where he met Dan Licciardi and Arra (Arrasate I), engrossed in coaching a group of players recruited from the University of Miami to play in Magic City.
Arra needed one day off a week and Licciardi convinced Stu to give that day to the former World Jai-Alai manager.
Stu Neiman, true to his destiny, had just signed up for an adventure that was scheduled to start in six months. Six months went by and MC started and Stu joined as an announcer.
«But, Stu,» I say. «A 36-meter cancha. Glass and metal walls and weird sounding balls.»
«There hasn’t been an abandonment of traditional jai-alai. The reason we at MC have glass and not cement, primarily, is because we’re on a second floor. They wanted jai-alai in that building, but the foundation would not hold the weight of granite and cement. There were engineering limitations.
Changing the foundation was too expensive, so they had to do something different. Glass and metal were an option. They opted for the 20-year-old Kalzakorta application. It was the second time it had been used, the first being in Florida City.»
Scott Savin is the ship’s commander. The visionary leader bent on steering the ship to safety.
Scott knows the ins and outs of traditional jai-alai well. Together with West Flagler Associates, they owned MC. And they took a minority stake in Casino-Dania Jai-Alai for three years. In that time he realized that traditional jai-alai was not profitable.
While at the helm of Dania, the owners of Hialeah were going to open a fronton: Florida City. They turned to Scott. He saw an opportunity to cut costs by creating a circuit with Florida City and what was later to become MC.
Scott presented the plan to IJAPA. The pelotari´s union was not interested. There was an idea at the time that the glass court was not real jai-alai. And that it was something undignified, something low.
Scott did not take offense. He just didn’t understand how, the jai-alai losing so many millions, didn’t realize the future that awaited them.
He spoke to an IJAPA representative twice. On the third he informed them that if they were unwilling, he would go to the University of Miami and recruit athletes and train them to play jai-alai from scratch.
«You can’t do that, it’s not going to work,» was the response.
«I know Scott, he’s very competitive.»
The challenge was on the table. Scott’s motto was: ´I’m going to lose money any way I can, I’m going to do it my way`.
At that time Flagler Associates disassociated itself from the «Argentines»; Dania.
In 2018 MC traded dogs for jai-alai. Scott convinced he couldn’t handle IJAPA pelotaris, set about the task of training players coming from UM, as many as he could.
After four years, what is the financial situation?
MC is a private company and does not have to make its accounting public. I was responsible for the numbers at Jai-Alai for 20 years. In MC my responsibility is the pelotaris.
However our economy is simple to understand.
We have 31 pelotaris. 25 of them on a full-year contract. With salaries of $29,000 per year plus health insurance. We are talking about a base salary cost of approximately $ 3.000 per pelotari per month.
The prizes in parimutuels/quinielas and Battle Court (matches played to 3 sets of 6 points) have a cost of $ 620,000 per year. We organize two tournaments. One for $25,000 (World Supercourt) and one for $20,000.
That is the total cost of the pelotaris. Then there is me a second announcer, judges, cestas (which we provide or reimburse). And then a huge marketing cost.
So, there is a cost of two million dollars a year. That’s the cost in trying to get the jai-alai going in MC.
In terms of revenue, last year (2021), our revenue from pari-mutuel was about $200,000. What comes from BetRivers, I don’t know. I estimate about $250,000. Whatever agreements there may be.
The difference with Miami Jai-Alai and Dania is that we see it as an investment.
We are spending more money every year and I give credit to Scott and West Flagler Associates. It’s proof that we believe in jai-alai as a product.»
I ask him about his contribution to MC, backed by 35 years in jai-alai. More so considering his initial doubts.
«I still have doubts. I don’t know if it’s going to work as a business. I only know that I concentrate exclusively on the pelotaris. Not on the economic part per se.
Some pelotaris may not be happy with me because I am strict. I give fines. I make sure there are rules and they are enforced. I support Arra as much as I can. My contribution from the beginning was to bring what I learned at the Miami Jai-Alai school, taking Epifanio, Pedro Mir and Aparicio as references.
There is not a pelotari in the roster who cannot call me at two o’clock in the morning. There is not one who does not have my phone number. There is one who has had an argument with his girlfriend… who can’t pay a bill. I am always available.
My biggest contribution is that they are focused to do their best on the court.
They lose money. Until when?
«There is no deadline. You’ve always heard that for a business to be profitable, it has to be profitable within five years. We’re past that time and we’re on our sixth.
There is momentum, energy, every year more. There is no deadline.
Scott argues that we are now on a three-year commitment to really see if the numbers at least add up. The goal is not even to make a profit but to see if the sport of Jai-alai can at least break-even in the US. Some people don’t understand that.
That’s the advantage of working with people who have money. Their income comes from other sources.
Everything is approached as an investment. If we achieve the objective of making even by 2025, we have Scott’s commitment to make this business indefinite.
But if there is no energy, no revenue, I´m not sure if it will continue beyond that year.»
Scott talks about expansion, Las Vegas, Dubai….
«That’s a goal. Before he said anything like that it means there have been contacts. Scott doesn’t just talk the talk.
The focus is on the Battle Court format, formal partidos, it’s the future of sports betting. We now have five teams in MC. (Each team has its owner for that season after a $100,000 outlay). Scott would like to have a Las Vegas team and elsewhere.»
Your players are not unionized. Don’t they need a Union?
«This may sound controversial. In principle any manager would say no to a Union. But since we don’t make any money there is nothing to negotiate. The pelotaris are going to get paid within the cost of the investment. Having a collective bargaining agreement with money-losing operations makes no sense. The pelotaris have their salary and a prize money that is as generous as it gets. I’m not against unions, but I don’t see what a union can do.
You collaborated with a fronton in the Basque Country last year, will you do it again?
«We will continue to collaborate for the Super Court tournament. I understand how things work in the Basque Country and I don’t want to meddle. So Goiko (Goikoetxea) was the appropriate one to manage the tournament (it was played in Ispaster) with the (Spanish) Federation and will do it again or we may do it as an invitational because of schedule conflicts in the summer.
The original owners of MC since 1950, the Havenick family, has sold the business to a tribe: Poarch Band of Creek Indians. They have disposed of the property and the slot machines. The Jai-Alai part, they have not.
Which is perfect proof of Scott’s commitment because now there will be no revenue from the machines.
They are going to get a juicy check, but they can do whatever they want with that money. The commitment is firm for three years.
Not since the Berenson family, in the early days of Miami Jai-Alai (almost 100 years ago) has there been a similar case where no one has put money out of pocket, in a context where there are no slot machines or licenses involved.