Thirteen people were scattered through the grandstand. Plus me. I would describe the crowd as subdued, except I’m not sure that 14 lonely souls meet the minimum requirement for proper use of the term. We were a non-crowd. None of us were shouting. Hardly a murmur.
The emptiness of the fronton seemed to amplify the “thwump” of the pelota, the rock-hard jai-alai ball, slamming into a three-story-tall granite wall at 180 mph, as the night’s roster of players rotated through the competition.
The scene, on a Thursday evening at Dania Jai-Alai, provided the dismal math proving that Florida’s pari-mutuel gaming has given way to farce: 16 players performed for 14 spectators.
Ken Bartnovski looked around at the empty seats and remembered two, three, four decades back , when five thousand exuberant gamblers would have pushed their way into this same fronton on a night like this. “You had to fight for a seat. People were shouting. They were excited. They screamed ‘ chula!’ when someone hit a kill shot.”
In those grand days, men wore sport coats to the fronton. Women wore cocktail dresses. Young waitresses scurried through the crowd delivering food and mixed drinks, working through the perpetual blue haze of cigarette and cigar smoke. Truly high rollers paid extra for those premium seats down close to the 176-foot court. Bartnovski remembered the women down front shouting suggestive promises at the players, if only their favorites delivered. It was unclear, in the hubbub, whether they were referring to a winning game or something else. Players, in those days, were stars. In 1965, an article in Sport Illustrated suggested that jai-alai would soon be stealing away the best athletes from other professional sports.
Now that entire front reserved-seat section has been fenced off. Players, looking out at 5,586 unoccupied seats Thursday night, must have felt like they were competing in a mausoleum. “Place has all the atmosphere of a sewer,” Bartnovski said.
Last month, Dania Jai-Alai temporarily closed its poker room while the new owners, an Argentinian gaming concern, renovate the 60-year-old fronton. The company plans to re-open a spiffier poker room in December and add a bank of 500 slot machines (with plans to add another 900 over the next two years). Until then, Dania Jai-Alai serves as a kind of laboratory, a test of this old-time pari-mutuel’s current popularity without the draw of poker and slot machines.
The lab results were evident Thursday evening and, as Ken Bartnovski observed, the findings were “pretty sad.”
So there were 14 spectators in the grandstand that holds 5,600. Add another five who might or might not have been watching the matches from a few tables off to the side. I counted another 20 customers around the corner in the snack bar, out of sight of the fronton, seated at tables before a bank of televisions, drinking beer, watching simulcasts of other pari-mutuel events around the country. Do the math. Plainly, jai-alai has become Florida’s flimsiest excuse for maintaining a gaming house.
But the same precious state gaming license that allows poker rooms and, in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, slot machines, requires Dania’s operators to pretend jai-alai remains as viable as the days when the Cadillacs lining up at valet parking had fins. But in 2013, the fins, the valet parking, the raucous crowds are all quaint memories.