As we approached 2010, I was dealing with a work environment completely foreign to me. When I began my career at Tampa Jai-Alai in 1971, working for the Berenson family, it was clear our goal was to expand the business. The focus was 100% on increasing our fan base, which would lead to more betting, thus higher profits. It now seemed all that had changed.
Yes, the world around us was different. Simulcasting (betting on other tracks around the country and showing their video) and poker were now additional products offered to supplement our Jai-Alai business. Yes, it was true that the Miami and Tampa frontons were the sites for some of the biggest rock concerts in Florida in the 70’s. But that was in the off-season. It was a logical way to generate additional revenues when we only had 5-month seasons.
So much had changed, especially at Dania Jai-Alai. We were no longer owned by Steve Snyder, someone who was dedicated to the advancement and success of the sport. Buddy and Richie Berenson, the family who brought Jai-Alai to America and put every ounce of their being into making the Jai-Alai successful, were no longer involved. John Knox, my boss, and GM for Dania, had resigned after a successful 40-plus year career. Dan Licciardi, still running Miami Jai-Alai, was one of the few left in our industry that shared much of my history in the sport.
We were now owned by a Las Vegas casino company, Boyd Gaming, who had pivoted from building a new, modern fronton/ casino to putting us in a holding pattern. Assigning an Executive VP, Jack Bernsmeier and HR consultant, Dave Winslow, to the property seemed to change our trajectory completely. Neither had any past Jai-Alai experience, nor shared any passion for the game.
Here’s how our now monthly meetings went when Bernsmeier would come to town. Seated at the conference table would be Winslow, CFO Clint Morris, our Poker Room Manager, Paula (or later Frank), Jose Arregui, Player Manager, and myself.
Bernsmeier would ask what new advertising or promotions could be done in poker. This was directed to the Poker Room Manager. He would, then, suggest opening a private club or even a nightclub inside of Dania Jai-Alai. Perhaps we could hold weddings and big events in our facility. Nothing he ever brought up pertained to Jai-Alai or simulcasting. I could see we were moving from a pari-mutuel establishment to an event venue. I had no interest in that pursuit.
Earlier that day, prior to the meeting (during our Jai-Alai matinee performance), I had run into an ex-Miami Jai-Alai player named Benny. Benny was one of the top Americans, aside from the legendary Joey who was in a class of his own, to play the sport. Benny and I have become good friends over the years. He had retired from the sport and had been working for Serv Pro, a flood mitigation company. We caught up and he told me he was just there to watch some Jai-Alai. I told him I had a meeting and hoped to see him later.
As our meeting upstairs continued, we began discussing amateur Jai-Alai and the demand for some of the amateurs wanting to practice on our court. Discussions evolved into allowing local amateurs to play with Bernsmeier discussing having someone go to all the schools to talk about the sport. All eyes looked at me. Clint and I were already carrying the load of essentially running the Jai-Alai operation since John had left. Plus, I was still responsible for all the PR and Marketing duties. Now this? Then, it hit me. I have just talked to the perfect person for the job. I said, “If you are serious and will create a position, I have your man.”
Of course, Winslow and Bernsmeier were cutting expenses and positions, not adding them. But I convinced them to wait in the office a few minutes and let me see if Benny was still around. They agreed.
I ran down the stairs, went into the main seating area and thank goodness, Benny was still there. Telling him about our discussion, I asked if he was interested, if it was a perfect position for him, and could get him back into Jai-Alai. His eyes lit up and he told me how much he missed being involved. I told him to follow me.
“Jack Bernsmeier, Dave Winslow, say hello to a good friend and great Jai-Alai player, Benny Bueno.” Benny is an extremely personable guy, and he charmed their socks off. He told them he had always wanted to train young kids in the sport, that he was very interested in their proposal. I knew this would be good for both of us. I did not have the time and Benny was ideal for the job. But would Boyd Gaming incur the expense for the new position?
As I think back, being at the right place at the right time is crucial in life. Why Benny decided to come to Dania that day, we will never know. But we worked out an agreement and Benny came to work for Dania, training and supervising the amateur program. This decision to take in some games at Dania that day would affect the future for not only Benny Bueno, but others, including me.