Our first order of business was to alert the Dania Jai-Alai players of the surprise resignation of GM John Knox. Boyd VP Jack Bernsmeier had already left South Florida to return to his home base, Delta Downs Racetrack and Casino in Louisiana. His parting instructions were, “You three (Clint Morris, Dave Winslow, and yours truly) will make all the management decisions at Dania.” Dave informed us that, due to his HR duties, he would be in direct contact with Jack.
So, Dave told Player Manager Jose Arregui to set up a meeting of the player union reps as soon as possible. Steve Snyder and John Knox had always dealt with player issues, negotiating the collective bargaining agreements in the past. But they were both gone. We now had to address who would negotiate future union agreements.
Oyarbide, Celaya, and Arrieta arrived upstairs in the conference room. All spoke English, especially Celaya and Arrieta (born here when his father played in Connecticut.) I knew all three well, especially Arrieta. They knew my past experience in the sport and had practiced on the court with me a few times. Being an amateur Jai-Alai player gave me special insight into their game. I felt they respected my dedication and knowledge of the sport. But, I was never involved with any union negotiations since the mid 70s.
I sat next to Player Manager Jose Arregui, the “head coach” of the roster and my close friend since the early 1970s in Tampa. By a very circuitous route, Arregui and I ended up together at Dania Jai-Alai after 35 years of working at different frontons. He played at Tampa Jai-Alai in the 60’s, was a court judge when I began as PR Director in Tampa in the 70s and spent many seasons with me at Ocala Jai-Alai. Arregui and wife Grace had become close friends. Now, we sat together at a long conference table, unable to fathom our future and the future of the sport.
Clint Morris, our CFO and now part of the management triumvirate, sat between Dave and myself. Dave Winslow, not an eloquent speaker at best, began the meeting by informing the players of John’s departure. He assured them that Boyd Gaming still had a major commitment to Dania, and that he, Clint, and I would be handling the management duties. The players looked concerned.
Oyarbide led off with asking about the future collective bargaining agreement. Who would they now negotiate with? Dave was non-committal. Then, Celaya wanted to discuss roster size changes, injury issues, and prize money concerns. Winslow looked like a deer in the headlights. When questioned, he turned his head to look at Arregui and I.
Poor Dave. He really had no idea what they were talking about. Having no background whatsoever in the sport, he could not give any intelligent answers. So, Arregui and I tried to address them, not knowing for sure who was going to make the final decisions for Boyd. Finally, we agreed to meet again in a week for further discussions. Little did I know this would be our last meeting with them, that Dave would meet alone with them. Arregui, Clint, and I never got the invite.
While we were dealing with our internal management issues, there was still the problem of low attendance at Jai-Alai and trying to stimulate interest in our Poker Room. Many felt poker, with Texas Hold’em sweeping the country as the new fad, could help offset the losses in live Jai-Alai. Poker tournaments were being held at the various Poker Rooms in South Florida and were very successful. I was trying to figure how we could, maybe, have something that would help both Jai-Alai and Poker.
One of the local radio stations, 790 “The Ticket”, had been vying for some of our advertising budget. They were competing in the sports-talk market and had hired a past Miami Herald columnist, Dan Le Batard, for a late afternoon show. Along with his co-host, Jon Weiner, known on air as Stugotz, Le Batard was gaining popularity on the air waves (he is now on ESPN). I was told he did remote broadcasts and attracted large crowds to their shows. I had an idea. Why not try a “Dan Le Batard Poker Tournament”?
But, instead of limiting it to the Poker Room, Dan would address the audience from the Jai-Ala court between games, try throwing the ball, call fans from the stands, then move to the Poker Room for the tournament. Maybe we could introduce a whole new segment of fans (his audience was already into sports) to not only the sport of Jai-Alai, but our Poker Room.
I negotiated an advertising buy with 790’s producer, Marc Hochman, and we scheduled the first Le Batard night at Dania Jai-Alai. It was going to be a test. If it worked, we would commit to bigger ad buys and have more remotes.
I was shocked! We had over 500 hundred Dan Le Batard fans show up that night, virtually having a party in the stands. Then, when Dan moved to the Poker Room, many followed and played. The entire promotion was a huge success. This was the first time I had seen a local “celebrity” pull so many listeners to a venue. All of our numbers increased substantially that night.
Clint Morris, part of our management team, was as excited as I was. He stayed for the festivities that night. Dave Winslow was nowhere to be found. I never heard a word from Boyd VP Jack Bernsmeier.
The next day, I told Winslow of the success of the promotion and that we would continue it monthly. He agreed and told me that Jack felt there were many other potential revenue streams for Dania other than Jai-Alai or Poker. Jack’s lack of response to the Le Batard promotion was puzzling. Bernsmeier felt that our venue was a perfect place for weddings, shows, even a private club. His focus seemed not on our main products, Jai-Alai and Poker.
Weddings? Who in their right mind would consider having their wedding on our second floor, where there was still a bullet hole in one of our tall windows. Wedding guests would have to walk through our Simulcast Cellar and up an escalator to an abandoned lobby area. Not the greatest ambience a bride might want.
Then, he proposed converting our smoking room, an enclosed area where I would hold my breath just walking through it, into a private club. Bernsmeier felt it could be successful on weekends with a little entertainment offered. I guess he didn’t realize we were only competing with South Beach and Las Olas in Lauderdale. I could feel a disaster coming. And, it was called, “Club Jai.”