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Goodbye, jai alai? Players and fans hope to save the sport in the U.S.

Participants say the closure of the last fronton, or court, in Florida is a major loss for the community.
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DANIA BEACH, Fla. — Players and others who make a living from the once-popular sport of jai alai hope the closing of the last fronton, or court, at The Casino at Dania Beach is not the end of their beloved game. 

State lawmakers recently eliminated a measure requiring casinos to host several pari-mutuel betting sports, including jai alai and harness racing.

Deemed one of the world’s fastest ball sports and originating in Spain’s and France’s Basque region, jai alai involves bouncing a ball off a three-walled court and catching it with a “cesta” or basket. It was brought to the United States in 1924, but gained popularity during the 1970s and the '80s after gambling in the game became legal.

In its heyday during the 1980s, there were 14 frontons throughout the U.S., including Florida, Connecticut, Rhode Island and in Las Vegas. 

“We would get, you know, five or six thousand people in a performance. And in the early '80s, there was a couple of exotic wagers that really brought the big gamblers out — in one day, it wasn’t odd to see a million dollars bet in one day,” said Benny Bueno, a former jai alai player and the director of jai alai player operations at Dania Beach.

However, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for the sport to retain an audience. While in the 1980s, the game attracted thousands of spectators, in recent years stadiums were filled with only a couple dozen attendees as wagers were done through mobile apps. What's more, the sport faced even tighter competition in Florida with the arrival of professional baseball, basketball and hockey, which has led to a marked decrease in attendance.

“So a lot has changed, not so much in the game, or the way the game is played, or the players. But a lot has changed in the business and the way that the business is operated in comparison to the '70s and '80s,” Bueno said.

“We started losing some customers there and then when poker came in the late '90s, we saw another decline,” he said. “We had to reduce the rosters, we had to reduce the seasons. And all of that was detrimental to the sport itself — my belief, personally, is that the gambling has been an issue in this sport." 

The closure of the facility is a major loss for the jai alai community, which is mostly comprised of workers and players of Hispanic descent. 

“I feel worse for the younger guys. Because it’s kind of like they got a taste of it, and now they have to go back home, wherever that is, ” said Bueno, who was born in the U.S. to a Cuban father and a Dominican mother. 

Gorka Aldazabal, who was born in Connecticut, is a second-generation jai alai player; his father was a professional player recruited by the Casino at Dania Beach to play in the state. The family is from Spain.

Image: Gorka Aldazabal in the Jai Alai fronton at The Casino at Dania Beach, Fla.
Gorka Aldazabal in the Jai Alai fronton at The Casino at Dania Beach, Fla.NBC News

Aldazabal added that he is grappling with the loss of the facility. 

“Right now, I’m 29, it sucks because I’m pretty much in the sweet spot as an athlete,” he said. 

Jai alai, which means merry festival in the Basque language, brings up a lot of joyful memories, Aldazabal said. “It’s something happy to us, something cultural, it’s engraved in us.”

One Florida fan summarized the feeling of those who had avidly participated in and watched the sport.

“It’s heartbreaking, I mean I follow the sport all my life, I play amateur jai alai and I think it’s one of the greatest sports in the world,” Julio Rosales told NBC Miami. “I remember Miami jai alai back in the '70s, when I first started going I couldn’t even get a seat.”

In Spain's Basque region, the sport continues to gain momentum. Bueno said he’s hopeful that with some changes, jai alai can make a comeback in the U.S.

At Dania Beach, though the fronton is closed, the casino remains open. Bueno said they are working to finalize a plan to reopen the fronton next year. 

“I think that here in the United States, it would have to be a total rebuild of what we have today. What we lack here that they have over there is facilities," he said, speaking of Spain. “But it would take somebody coming in and making an investment in the sport.”

For Aldazabal and many others, the changes mean they are losing an opportunity to play the sport they love. In the wake of the closure, he is slightly optimistic about the future of jai alai. 

“We pour our souls on every single point and it’s an opportunity to thrive in the sport that we grew to love since we’re kids,”he said. “The sport doesn’t die. It’s more of a transition moment for jai alai than a dead end."

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