Miami-Dade County

Miami Jai-Alai looks to catch on again despite financial reality

Once upon a time, the fast times in Miami happened here.

Before the renaissance of South Beach, when Wynwood was still a rough manufacturing district, a night on the town started at the front doors of Miami Jai-Alai.

Here’s a flashback:

Tour buses fill with sunburn Northerners lurch from oceanfront hotels, lumbering their way across the causeway to a huge building with magic inside.

The buzz of well-dressed gamblers in the smoky lobby drowns out the thwack-thwack-thwack of goat-skin pelota pelting the wall at what seems like the speed of sound.

For a cool $1.5 mil, a renovation adds space and murals as 1920s-era walls are pushed back to accommodate bigger crowds.

A local kid named Joey becomes a star on the court.

This was the world of jai-alai in 1960s and ‘70s Miami. Sexy. Hot. And the place to be. Think Heat games at the AA, minus the kids and with better dressers.

By the ‘80s, the fronton was fading a bit, but still part of the opening credits of Miami Vice along with South Beach cleavage and the Hialeah Park flamingos, and home to sold-out concerts and boxing matches.

Now, flash forward: More than two decades later, the forlorn fronton off gritty 36th Street near the airport is struggling to regain past glory. The crowds are in the hundreds, sometimes in the dozens. And the parent company has filed for bankruptcy protection.

The lobby still smells of cigarette smoke. Flashy neon signs and dated billboards still decorate the large arena. Players still swing their cestas, catching and tossing ball against wall.

But the crowds are a thing of the past. The fashion is work-a-day clothes, not evening wear. The visitors live nearby. The glamour is hard to find, unless it’s in one of the ads.

And the money? There’s not as much in the jackpot as there was in the Mad Men days.

But despite decades of decreased attendance and a recent bankruptcy filing, the management and staff of Miami Jai-Alai are high on the future.

"Bankruptcy does not impact our operations," said manager Rene Guim. "We are not changing or diminishing our staff. There is ample cash to pay jackpots and prizes."

The fronton opened a casino in January 2012 and has seen a steady rise in attendance since then, Guim said.

Its second-quarter earnings report, issued Monday, showed Florida Gaming posting a $4 million operating profit for the three months that ended June 30. Casino revenues in those 90 days hit $19 million.

Despite the good news from the casino, the vestige of failure remains.

A now-vacant five-star restaurant was once jammed seven nights a week and considered one of the hippest places in town, said longtime host Manny Rodriguez.

Celebrities and high-rollers watched the games from the leather booths that overlook the jai-alai court and order steak dinners from tuxedo-wearing waiters.

A-listers like Sylvester Stallone — at the time was the muscular young actor from the Rocky movie — used to visit the Courtview when in town.

Now the restaurant’s leather booths are layered in dust and betting slips from years past line the floor.

"I really get depressed when I come here," said Rodriguez, 72, who has worked at the fronton for 35 years, now as a bartender.

The view from the vacant restaurant: a nearly empty jai-alai arena. The biggest sounds aren’t cheers from the crowd but the echo of pelota hitting wall at 180 miles-per-hour.

"It used to get so loud that you couldn’t hear the ball," said, Juan Ramon Arra, 50, a former player who now works as an agent.

An episode of AMC’s Mad Men captures the excitement surrounding jai-alai in the 1960s.

"It shows the way jai-alai attendance is growing," a rich young investor tells Don Draper and company during a pitch in the popular show. "In seven years, it’ll eclipse baseball."

Many factors contributed to jai-alai’s decline in popularity over the decades. The players went on strike in the late ‘80s. The city got the Heat, Marlins and Panthers. With multistate lotteries, cable TV, and streaming movies on the smartphone, watching and betting on men playing a glorified game of handball hasn’t caught on with new generations.

Jai-alai also began its downward spiral at the same time two of its former executives met violent deaths in professional hits in the early ‘80s, and also as Miami’s street violence peaked around neighboring Miami International Airport as bands of robbers targeted tourists in rental cars.

Yet, despite the sparse crowds and fading luster, there is optimism from the people who run what is now known as Casino Miami Jai-Alai.

Even though the casino and the fronton are in the same building, walking from one to the other feels like a time warp.

Inside the casino lobby, shiny new Fiats entice customers to hit the slots for a chance to win one of the Italian cars. The walls and carpet are new, the TVs are flat screens, not the boxy ones at the fronton.

But the two sides of the fronton depend on each other. The sport of jai-alai makes it legal for the management to operate a casino. And the casino brings in enough money to subsidize the jai-alai.

Financial statements filed in court show the fronton’s slot machines delivering $1.1 million in cash to the operation every week, while a top executive testified that running jai-alai matches brings a net loss of about $1 million every year.

“We will survive,” Rodriguez said.