In the mid ’90s, revenues and attendance continued to decline at virtually all the tracks and frontons throughout the country. The Connecticut frontons, including Hartford Jai-Alai (owned by my close friends Buddy and Richie Berenson) were struggling to compete with the large Foxwoods Casino, one of the most successful Native American casinos in the nation.
This was foreboding for us in Florida as we came to the realization that our products could not compete with the fast action of casino games, like slots, roulette, or craps. We could only hope that the state of Florida would allow us to offer some additional casino-type gaming. There answer was poker, but with a pot limit of $10.
Meanwhile, Martin Fleischman Advertising had undergone some changes. Lou Ann Dolan, my administrative assistant, who had helped me start the advertising agency for World Jai-Alai, decided the family wanted to move back to her hometown in Missouri. I wasn’t sure how I was going to replace Lou Ann.
But, fortunately, another phenomenal woman, Kim McGuire, who had previously worked for me, was interested in the job. Kim took over for Lou Ann and continued the unbelievable work required to keep our operation running smoothly. I knew I had been extremely lucky to have two amazing women as employees, that also became part of our family.
My wife, Sue, had taken over the job as Media Buyer and was coming into the office about three days a week, handling most of duties from home. She had learned the intricacies of media buying and was doing a great job.
I was now doing everything else, including producing the ads and commercials. We three made a great team. The future looked bright…until the day I left town for a World Jai-Alai corporate meeting at Saddlebrook Resort just north of Tampa.
This meeting was sandwiched in between days of golf and casual friendly poker games at night. Donovan, Rico, the management of our three remaining frontons, plus managing partner of WJA Realty (World Jai-Alai’s official corporate entity) Roger Wheeler, Jr. were in attendance.
Roger loved to play golf. All of us liked and respected him. He had gotten through the toughest time of his life, his father’s murder. The family decided to maintain ownership of our company, despite the tragic loss of Roger, Sr. He basically made all the final decisions, though the rest of his family had a vote.
A surprise guest at our gathering was Patricia Wheeler, Roger Wheeler’s widow. “Pat” had made very few visits to Miami after the acquisition and really was in the background of the family business. I had met her previously. She had been friendly and very cordial.
But, when she was introduced at the beginning of our meeting at Saddlebrook, I could sense a difference in her demeanor. Though it had been more than 15 years after her husband’s untimely death, she appeared shaken.
Her speech was short. I could sense sadness in her voice. She began thanking us all for all the work we had done to keep the company going. I could see her eyes beginning to well up as she told us the entire Wheeler family “was so appreciative.”
I began to think that something was wrong. We had never really heard anything like this in the past. Not that the Wheelers were tough, hard-nosed owners, though maybe Roger, Sr. had that reputation. But, this expression of gratitude, from the matriarch of the Wheeler family, was just plain unusual.
The meeting ended and we headed to the Tampa Airport to fly back to Miami. I was in the car with Donovan and Rico. About halfway to the airport, Donovan said, “Marty, when we get back to Miami, you might get some calls about the Colletts acquiring our loan from the banks.”
I was confused. Did they buy the rest of World Jai-Alai, our three remaining frontons? Were they now merely our “bankers?” What did that mean for any of us? I asked Dick that.
“Well, we haven’t been able to service the debt for a while now,” he told me. “We are in default of our loans and Bennett knows that. We are trying to negotiate a complete sale of the company to them, or we will let them try to foreclose,” he went on.
We had previously sold our Ft. Pierce fronton to the newly formed Florida Gaming Corporation. Now, they wanted to acquire the rest of the company and had gotten the banks to sell our notes at a discounted rate. I could see our entire future was now in doubt.
Donovan said the deadline to make a deal was December 31st, (1996), a few months away. He said if we couldn’t come to an agreement with Florida Gaming, we could fight foreclosure or even declare bankruptcy, tying things up for years. But it was not clear if we could continue to operate if filing bankruptcy. We were closely regulated by the state and it was possible they wouldn’t license us while in bankruptcy. So, there seemed to be leverage on both sides.
By the time we landed in Miami, I knew things would never be the same again. There was no doubt, if the Collett family took over, Dick Donovan and Paul Rico were out. It was possible, I would be out, too.
I began to contemplate a future without Jai-Alai. I had spent 25 years in the sport. I had never contemplated what I would do outside of it. Yes, I had my own advertising agency. But my only client was World Jai-Alai. I really was not prepared to go out and try to sell others on using Martin Fleischman Advertising.
I hated sales, I hated trying to sell myself. Plus, I had a wife and children to support. Moving back to Tampa was a very real possibility. I, also, had to tell Kim the situation. She had stuck with me since Lou Ann’s departure and, also, had a family.
As the months went by, I would hear from Donovan that the negotiations with the Colletts were not going well. They, in fact, became more acrimonious as the deadline approached. At one point, it looked like no deal on a sale was going to happen.
Finally, on December 31st, just hours before the agreement expired, they struck a deal. Florida Gaming Corporation acquired the remaining assets of World Jai-Alai and now owned the frontons in Miami, Tampa, Ocala, and Ft. Pierce.
They, also, had their sights on developing the finest poker rooms in the state to boost the revenues and enhance their corporate earnings. Poker seemed the future, the savior.
It was the first day of 1997. Miami Jai-Alai was now officially owned by Florida Gaming. Donovan was packing up his things in his office., Bennett and Benny entered a closed-door meeting with him. I heard it break up and Bennett walking down the hall toward my office. He stopped at my door and entered. He shook my hand and sat down across from my desk.
“You know we made a deal and now own World Jai-Alai,” he said with that charming, keep-your-hand-on-your-wallet Southern drawl. “My son and I will be running things around her from now on,” he told me.
I felt my heart pounding. I knew this was it. He was going to thank me and in his old Kentucky way, gradually breaking it to me that I had two weeks to turn over the advertising to his own agency. 25 years! My love of Jai-Alai, now down to this. Fired by two people who had never even seen our wonderful sport, really didn’t care about it.
Then, he asked me question. I answered nervously. What, then, came out of his mouth put me in shock!