First “cable” broadcast of a Jai-Alai tournament. “On TV” agreed to show the Tournament of Champions to the South Florida market. Kevin Koffman, my assistant (left), myself (middle) and Tom Contreras (Ocala GM) handled the commentary. Four cameras and slow-motion replays were featured.
The sport of Jai-Alai seemed to be entering its “Golden Age,” in the mid to late 1970’s. Attendance was soaring in nearly every fronton in the state. Soon after the opening of our Hartford fronton, Milford and Bridgeport opened in the state of Connecticut. All were successful, much to the dismay of the state regulators and media skeptics.
Tampa Jai-Alai had undergone some significant improvements since Buddy Berenson convinced the board to acquire it in 1969. With new stars on the roster and a growing Tampa Bay market, it seemed Tampa Jai-Alai was about to match Miami’s success.
There were only two major promotions at our facilities: opening night and closing night. Otherwise, my job was to make sure we got as much free media exposure as possible. But there were a few “minor” promotions run during the season that did increase the attendance and betting significantly. They were called “partidos.”
Partidos were head-to-head matches between two teams. This was the way it was played in Spain. Since the players continued to play, even if they lost a point, the true skill of the players overcame the luck of the rotating format seen by fans in the U.S. Plus, we could match up two popular teams, players the fans really wanted to see.
These partidos were held, usually on a Saturday night, following the final game of the night. They were strictly exhibition matches with no betting. Most of the partidos were played to 15 points. Since the final game didn’t end until around 12:30 am, most partidos didn’t start almost 1 am. Yet, more than 1,000 fans would stay to watch the match.
Being a true fanatic of the sport, I loved the partidos. I was, also, amazed that we had that many fans staying so late to watch, with no betting, just pure Jai-Alai. One thing kept popping up in my young mind. Why were the match-ups always intra-fronton and not inter-fronton? That is, why weren’t we able to play a team from Miami?
I knew when I started in Tampa, Miami Jai-Alai was known as the “Yankee Stadium of Jai-Alai.” This was the home of the greats: Orbea, Churruca, Chimela, and Ondarres. The roster now featured Juaristi, Enrique, Asis, and Joey. I was told Tampa players could not compete with these stars. Or maybe if we happened to beat them in a partido, Miami Jai-Alai would lose its prestige.
I was watching our players compete every day. Bolivar was unbeatable. Laca wouldn’t drop a ball. Now we had Gorrono, known as one of the best backcourters in the world. Aramayo and Echeva were young, but now competing with the stars. I thought we were ready and mostly; the fans were ready.
So, I drew up a concept where we would have players qualify at each fronton during a one-month period within our regular program. The winners would represent each fronton in a best-of-five partido series, rotating between Miami and Tampa. I called it, “The Tournament of Champions.”
I discussed the idea with GM Dick Gerrity and Player Manager Beitia. I convinced them that it would not only be good for business but could catapult Tampa Jai-Alai’s prestige to the top. The hard part would be to convince Miami. They had little to gain, and plenty to lose. But, if Dick Donovan and Paul Rico, Miami’s corporate bosses, saw the business advantage, they might go for it.
First, Gerrity pitched the idea to Rico. He loved it. Paul said he would discuss it with Donovan and told me to send him the specifics. I did, and we held the first intercity partido series, World Jai-Alai’s Tournament of Champions, in 1976. The series was tremendously successful and continued each year through the early 80’s, where it became the model for the NAJF (Nat’l Association of Jai-Alai Frontons) National Championship involving the major frontons in the state.
It turned out, the stars from both frontons played their hearts out. The fans saw the sport at its best. The two frontons shared the trophy the first four years, splitting 2-2, until Miami’s Asis and Soroa defeated Tampa’s Jesus and Zulaica II in 1980. But, the climax in this series came in 1981 when Joey and Soroa defeated Tampa’s Echeva and Irigo to take the trophy back to Miami.
This set the stage for a national championship, to include more Florida frontons, Connecticut and Newport, Rhode Island. But who would be making those decisions for World Jai-Alai?
In 1977, a very conservative, highly religious, Tulsa oilman executed one of the first leveraged buyouts (LBO) of a public company in US history. It was announced that Roger Wheeler now owned 100% of World Jai-Alai. This would be the worst decision of his life!
Note to readers: Marty will be on vacation for the next 4 weeks, traveling the country. His incredible stories will resume again at that time. There are lots of great stories to follow. Thanks for being a reader. Jeff “Laca” Conway / Pelota Press