Bennie Bueno remembers when Jai-alai players were the toast of Miami back in the 1970s and 80s.
“You had the Miami Dolphins, the Orange Bowl and Miami Jai-alai,” Bueno told a recent ESPN documentary.
“That was pretty much it.”
A new ESPN 30-for-30 short documentary was released Tuesday called ‘What the hell happened to Jai Alai.’
Directed by Ryan Suffern, the mini-doc chronicles the rise and fall of a game which once was king of South Florida’s parimutual nightlife.
Today, the glory days of Jai-alai are gone as the frontons in Miami and Dania have struggled to put fans in the seats. Although Miami’s fronton looks much like it did 20 years ago, the redesign of Dania cut seating to just a few hundred as its large fronton is now a sparkling new casino floor.
“The game needs to move into this century,” said Bueno, who is the player manager at Dania. “It’s stuck in a time warp.”
Half of the documentary shows clips from the glory years of the game when frontons were scattered throughout Florida and in sports such as Hartford, Connecticut, as well as Rhode Island.
Good Morning America even sent correspondent Bruce Jenner to Miami to do a feature on the sport back in what appeared to be the early 1980s.
Most blame the player’s strike – one which lasted more than three years in the 1980s – for the start of the decline.
Locally, professional sports teams such as the Heat, Marlins and Panthers took away attention while lottery scratch-off games introduced in 1988 took away money from the frontons.
Casinos throughout South Florida have also hurt the sport. And if owners get the chance to separate their parimutuels from their casinos and gaming licenses, many worry the sport will disappear – at least in the way South Florida knows it.
“Jai-alai, right now, is on life support,” Cornblit said. “They’re getting ready to pull the plug.”
JAI-ALAI LIVES IN SOUTH FLORIDA
Miami Jai-Alai/Casino Miami
▪ Where: 3500 NW 37 Ave., Miami; 305-633-6400
▪ When: Matinee games daily except Tuesday.
▪ Web: casinomiamijaialai.com
Dania Jai-Alai/Dania Beach Casino
▪ Where: 301 E. Dania Beach Boulevard, Dania Beach; 954-920-1511
▪ When: Games throughout the week, matinees and evening; live Jai-Alai returns in September.
▪ Web: casinodaniabeach.com