MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Florida is one of the few places in the country where you can still watch and bet on jai alai in local casinos. The heyday of jai alai was decades ago, but there are signs of a resurgence.
Jai Alai, which some call the fastest sport on earth, is played with woven cestas swinging through the air, pelotas reaching speeds up 170 miles per hour, and players jumping off walls.
The jai alai fronton was the place to be and the place to be seen in the 70s and 80s and was even featured on the popular TV show Miami Vice.
“Back in the day people smoked inside, and it was a cloud of smoke, and the cracking sound of the ball and the roar of the people it was great,” recalled Joey Corblit.
Cornblit is retired jai alai legend, and just one of two players ever to have their jersey number retired.
In the sports heyday, he played in front of crowds of 10,000 people, where the intensity spilled over into the stands and even the locker rooms.
“There was only one winner and there’s 7 losers,” said Cornblit.
“All in the same locker room?” asked CBS4’s Mike Cugno.
“Yes. Helmets are flying.”
During that time, the crowd was so loud, players couldn’t hear each other on the court.
“People are yelling and screaming at you, ‘Under serve, over serve!’ and you would drop it. You couldn’t ever really hear your partner,” said pro jai alai player Tevin.
That fierceness has not died down inside the fronton, but the crowd is a different story.
At the casino at Dania Beach, the viewing section holds just about 500 people. It is a stark contrast from the height of the sport’s popularity.
“We used to come all the time then it kind of lost its popularity and I guess I got busy,” said fan Jeff Heist.
There’s a lot of competition now for the entertainment dollar.
Benny Bueno, the Jai Alai operations manager for the casino at Dania Beach, grew up in the sport and is trying to keep it from quickly disappearing.
He says there are a number of factors that affected its popularity including a lengthy player strike in the 80s to the growing number of sports franchises, and even more gambling in the casinos themselves.
“What really gears the success of jai alai is that there’s a lot of people betting it, the pools are bigger. It’s just like in horseracing. If we have a couple hundred people betting a couple hundred dollars, the pools are significant but they’re not going to get people that are winning $30,000 at a poker tournament,” explained Bueno.
Professional players have contracts tied to the success of the casinos plus incentives for winning.
Player Arrieta says it is not a bad living.
“It’s a dream. It’s a dream, you know you’ve got a lot of time off. It’s not like we make crazy money but we make decent enough to make a living.”
Documentaries like Billy Corbin’s Magic City Hustle have highlighted new interest for the sport with six figure earnings. However, as casinos in the area move on from greyhound racing and adopt jai alai, they will face another problem, a lack of players.
For the sport to keep growing, it needs new players.
Pros like Tevin and Arrieta moved from Connecticut when their frontons closed down for good.
With little support for youth jai alai, and less than a dozen operating frontons across the country, the pool of players is getting smaller, plus bringing international players over is difficult with stricter immigration policies.
“It would take a huge investment from several people to say we’re going to take jai alai and we’re going to make it a mainstream sport, were’ going to get sponsorships, we’re going to get people to follow it, we’re going to have amateur places for kids to come and learn how to play the sport. It’s really a grass roots effort,” explained Bueno.
One factor potentially fueling jai alai’s popularity is the local talent taking up the sport.
Athletes like Tanard Davis, Chad Barnes and Kenny Kelly, all former University of Miami hurricanes, are making the transition to being professional jai alai players and they are enjoying every heart-stopping moment of it.