Twelve years ago, Matt DiDomizio saved any form of jai-alai in Connecticut by building an amateur court in Berlin. A couple of years before that, Paul Kubala did the same thing on the west coast of Florida by lobbying the City of St. Petersburg to construct America’s first public court. Last year, Dania jai-alai announced they were closing shop after Florida legislators approved the decoupling of the sport while allowing parimutuel facilities to keep their other forms of gambling going such as slot machines and poker. That would have been the last remaining full size, goat-skin fronton in America, leaving “short court” Magic City as the last place to watch professional jai-alai.
The ancient Basque sport is still of life support, but there is still hope. Dania Casino earlier this year announced they were reopening for two months in December and January with a full roster and parimutuel wagering. The institution may see its 70th anniversary after all. Matt retired as being a mailman in his post pro jai-alai last year, and now devotes fulltime efforts on his cancha. The St. Pete court got a huge makeover last year and is now an excellent amateur facility with visitors coming hundreds of miles just to play.
Meanwhile, down in Miami, Magic City’s COO Scott Savin announced that they were committing to a 6th season to their unique version of rubber ball, small court jai-alai. But as he told Mark Saxon of USBets recently, the owners of the highly successful racino are going to have to start seeing a profit to keep jai-alai alive beyond 2023.
Savin told Saxon in the interview that “The owners give me a lot of latitude and they’ve been great about it. As long as we are increasing revenues, they’re good to go with it. If we stagnate or drop, they would tell me, and I would agree with them, that this was a wonderful experiment that didn’t go where we wanted it to go. But right now, everyone’s enthusiastic that we’re still very much in the growing phase and everything looks like it’s unfolding positively.”
Savin was the one that came up with the idea of opening jai-alai as an alternative to running dog racing at what was previously called Flager Greyhound Park. Dog racing had been running there since 1932 but it was costly to operate, and it took up a lot of land. There was a seldom known clause on the books that allowed parimutuel facilities to switch from dog or horse racing to jai-alai. Pompano Park was about to do the same thing a couple years ago by switching from harness racing to jai-alai. Plans were already in place for a newly constructed fronton. Calder did the same thing by opening their “fronton” and ditching horse racing that was actually being held at Gulfstream. They converted a second-floor concert hall into a condensed jai-alai court with glass walls due to weight issues a traditional court made of granite and concrete blocks would have presented. Savin had previously been involved with Dania Casino and apparently fell in love with the sport like the rest of us have. Ironically, Dog racing was banned in the state of Florida after animal rights activists got it on the ballot that was easily passed by the public in a referendum. But the jai-alai court was already operating at the time. Magic City still had to option to phase out jai-alai at that time because they were still operating “legally” as a dog track, but they elected to keep it going. Then jai-alai was later decoupled but the jai-alai action continued – even with longer seasons and much more experienced players.
As one of the most successful racinos in the Broward-Dade area in terms of slot machine revenue, Magic City certainly has the resources, and from what we have heard, the profits are enormous.
But changes have been on the way in the way they continue to operate the jai-alai action. It is no secret that parimutuel wagering on jai-alai is no longer a money maker like it was for decades before. Dania has been losing millions over the years with their jai-alai operation. Magic City is no different. Their players are paid a yearly salary and are offered generous bonuses for wins, places, shows and for end of year totals. A top player can easily make six figures a year. They even hold tournaments yearly for amateurs and ex-pros who have not played in years with total prizes of over $20,000. When Magic City first opened, many jai-alai loyalist were furious. They did not care at all for the short court, the glass walls, and the use of a rubber ball. The rubber ball had to happen as the real pelota – harder than a golf ball and covered with two layers of goat skin – was penetrating the front wall glass around the “seams” and causing the panels to crack. It certainly didn’t sound like jai-alai either when the ball hits the front wall. And as Mark Saxon cleverly wrote in his article to USBets- “Savin’s group has altered the rules enough to make the Basque inventors from the late 19th century roll over in their graves”.
Right now, Magic City Jai-alai appears to be in a transition period that might not make jai-alai loyalists in Florida and Connecticut too happy. The parimutuel wagering format has been cut back from 5 evenings and a couple of matinees a week down to just 3 afternoons – in the odd days and times of 1:30pm on Sunday, Monday and Tuesdays. At 5pm on those same days, a head-to-head format takes place with fix odds betting allowed in just seven states thru a site called BetRivers Sportsbook & Casino. You can bet on a team to win just like you could bet on the Cowboys or any other sports team. It’s a best of 3 with the format just like in tennis. It’s exciting and fast-paced. But it is not available in Florida and Connecticut and might never be with Connecticut outlawing jai-alai gambling and the fact that Magic City were the ones that sued successful and shut down sports betting in Florida. There had been an exclusive agreement with the Seminole Tribe that anyone in the state of Florida could place sports bets on the phone. It was simpler than ordering a pizza. A judge stopped it after it had legal for about a month. While it’s being appealed, nothing will be resolved until next year – at the earliest. The argument is that the better would have to be on tribal property in order to place the bets, not using their phones offsite that go to a server on the tribal property. There is also an issue with another group contesting it that sports betting is a “common game” found in casinos and must pass a recently approved voter amendment that requires a statewide vote with 60% approval for any future gambling top take place.
No one knows how well the sports betting format has been going but Savin did tell US Bets that wagering is up 30% this season and that the sport has moved into BetRivers’ top 10 in handle – ahead of sports like rugby, darts and Major League Lacrosse. It is just slightly behind the Canadian Football League.
Why is the sports betting being held only on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesdays at the weird hour of 5pm? Because there is very little competition in that time period. There is a certain number of gamblers out there in the USA that want to gamble at that time, and generally there are no horse races or sporting events being held at that time. Savin had mentioned in the past that Chinese Ping-Pong had a decent betting audience because of the lack of competition at those hours.
Scott Savin has even more plans for jai-alai. They are looking into a “league” expansion. Inquiries from interested investors from Las Vegas and foreign entities have looked to expand the leagues footprint. Savin dreams of an Eastern Conformance competing at the Magic City fronton and a Western Conference competing in Las Vegas with the winner playing in something like the “Super Bowl” of jai-alai.
Savin also envisions growth in the sport in selling teams for $100,000 that compete in the “Battle Court” Season that will start in September. A draft is expected to be held next month where the new owners call all the shots. The winner of Battle Court gets $50,000 in prize money, plus whatever revenue sharing is handed out. Sports betting? Broadcasting revenues? There is a potential if it takes off.
During the firsts season ownership was offered, two of the four teams were “bartered” to a couple of media companies for free publicity. The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz was one of them. In a nice gesture, the prize money will go to a charity of their choice.
Will this all be successful?
“That’s what everyone is clinging to, with a wide-eyed optimism for what the sport potentially could be,” Savin said. “But right now, everyone’s enthusiastic that we’re still very much in the growing phase and everything looks like it’s unfolding positively” he told Saxon.