In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: A lonely match at Dania Jai-Alai

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.

Dania’s pari-mutuel license requires 150 performances a year. The new owners must have calculated that the expense of staging this nightly charade will be offset by profits from poker tables and slot machines. Though it wasn’t a gamble that paid off for the previous owners. Boyd Gaming, out of Las Vegas, purchased Dania Jai-Alai back in 2006 for $152 million. The new owners (who operate 27 casinos in Argentina) picked up the old fronton from Boyd in May for just $65.4 million.

“Once they bring slot machines in here, maybe this joint will be hopping again,” said Fred Castro, who said he was there more for the beer and companionship with other old-timers than the jai-alai. “But nowadays it’s not much.”

How dead? There were fewer spectators in the grandstand Thursday night than the number of people who attended the special meeting of the state Senate gambling committee Wednesday in Coconut Creek to speak in favor of dropping the requirement that frontons and racinos hold actual parimutuel events to retain their gaming licenses. “Decoupling” was the watchword of the day. (Most of the decouplers were animal-rights activists, interested in doing away with greyhound racing.)

At least Dania still runs honest, if rather lonely matches. Gaming consultants hired by the state Legislature reported in July that a jai-alai operation in Ocala, interested only in the profits generated by poker, “stretched the letter of the law when it hired two locals who played each other over and over to comply with the minimum-performance law.” One of the two performers is a former University of Florida place kicker, but this was not exactly what the author of the 1965 Sports Illustrated piece had in mind when he predicted jai-alai would be poaching jocks from other sports.

Ocala’s manager told the consultants “that he had no choice but to run jai-alai the way he did because it loses so much money, adding, ‘We can’t get anyone to watch it. If this was just jai-alai, we would have been closed long ago.’”

The findings were just as dreary at the Hamilton Jai-Alai in Jasper, near the Georgia border. Hamilton employed just four players, including a father- and-son combination. Hamilton’s manager told the consultants he was only trying to do the minimum necessary to keep his poker room license, sending out those four pathetic players to go at one another over and over, in a kind of Ground Hog Day bastardization of the sport. The manager admitted, “People call it a joke, and I cannot disagree. It is either do this or shut the door. We cannot get anyone to watch this anymore.”

In Jasper, evidence that jai-alai has become a pari-mutuel farce is also in the numbers. The total betting handle in 2012 for Hamilton Jai-Alai was $2.

Earlier this month, the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering proposed new rules that would require jai-alai frontons to carry full eight-man professional rosters, rather than the fakery staged in Jasper and Ocala. But that won’t fix the public’s flagging interest in the game. The total handle for all six of the state’s jai-alai operations has fallen 91 percent since 1990. Total paid attendance has fallen from 3.9 million in 1990, to 9,068 in 2012. But given that Dania no longer charges admission, I’m not sure if the attendance numbers have any real meaning.

Greyhound racing is not doing much better. And the harness track operation at the Isle Casino and Racing at Pompano Beach is evolving into yet another unfunny pari-mutuel joke, just a front for racinos.

But it’s jai-alai that has become a nearly funereal experience in Florida. “Just look,” said Fred Castro. “This is like watching something die.”

If the traveling state Senate gambling committee wanted to get a real grasp of the ludicrous 1950s regulations governing gaming in Florida, the senators might have done better convening that evening in the grandstand at Dania Jai-Alai. There would have been plenty of seats and few distractions. Except for that thwump, thwump, thwump of a pelota, echoing across a nearly empty fronton.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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