Arriaga, Cuvet, Celaya, Arregui, Beitia, Arrieta… new names, new players. I became enamored with this new roster of players, the players of Dania Jai-Alai. My realm had changed. The World Jai-Alai rosters of Miami and Tampa used to be household names for me.
Now, I was in the small hamlet of Dania Beach. Located between Hollywood and Ft. Lauderdale, Dania Beach had the small-town charm. It had been known for two things: antiques and Dania Jai-Alai.
Since my kids were both in college, Sue and I sold our Miami house and moved to a nice area just a few blocks from the fronton. We were five minutes from the beach and less than that from my desk. This was almost paradise for me, having just finished seven years of a tortuous commute from South Miami.
But there was still some frustration with our inability to bring the sport back to anywhere near the levels before the strike of 1988. We had multiple “Dania-Miami Challenge” matches pitting our top players against Miami Jai-Alai’s best. It was always exciting to see Arriaga face the top Miami star Michelena. But business continued to drop.
I was spending some of my management duties in our Poker Room. Texas Hold’em was becoming a national fad. Many felt that our poker business could help subsidize the entire fronton operation. But that was a lot to ask. Poker was doing well, but we were still hampered by state regulations.
Finally, I got the call from owner Steve Snyder to meet in his office. He wanted to further discuss my “Fantasy Jai-Alai” idea. John Knox, General Manager, and I made our almost daily trek upstairs to his office. “I’m willing to give the idea a try,” he told us. “But I’m not happy that people can sign up, select a team of players, and maybe not come back.”
“Steve, they will come back! They will want to watch their players and they will bet on them,” I said, maybe a bit to adamant. Snyder, not really being familiar at all with the attraction of Fantasy Sports, wouldn’t budge. “I won’t approve the promotion unless you have a mechanism to require the customers to be here at least twice.” I feared this would doom Fantasy Jai-Alai before it got started.
Back in my office, I began to create a structure. Fans would sign up with a provided entry form and select any 8 players on the roster as their Fantasy Jai-Alai team. Then, they would have to return to the fronton during the “Activation Period” to validate their team. This fabricated “activation” should satisfy Snyder’s return requirement. But how many original entrants would actually come back during that one week activation period?
I will not bore you with all the details. Over 1,000 Dania Jai-Alai customers signed up to play Fantasy Jai-Alai that first “season”. Around 850 did return to “Activate” their teams. The Fantasy Season lasted for a month.
I ran the stats each morning and posted daily print outs of the standings at Customer Service. Manny’s computer programming worked like a charm. Every performance, I would see a crowd perusing the posted standings. Everyone seemed excited, including the employees.
Our actual Dania players loved the promotion. Many came up to me when I was in the player’s quarters telling me it was one of the most unique promotions ever in the sport. They liked the fact people were looking at them as athletes instead of numbers to bet on. They hoped it would work. So did I!
That first season of Fantasy Jai-Alai attracted a lot of fan, employee, and player interest. It generated some much-needed publicity. To say it increased our attendance and actual betting was barely discernible.
We continued with more seasons of Fantasy Jai-Alai, including an online version, plus a special media personality category. But I could see the enthusiasm from our staff and upper management beginning to wane. Finally, after 3 seasons, without the help and coordination I needed, Fantasy Jai-Alai became a fantasy once again.
Within a few years, Fantasy Football, Fantasy Baseball, and Fantasy Basketball began to sweep the country. ESPN started running “crawls” at the bottom of their shows highlighting individual player statistics, mainly for fantasy players. Sport shows dedicated to fantasy drafts became prevalent across all sports networks. Fantasy sports was here to stay. Fantasy Jai-Alai sadly wasn’t. Or was it?