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Miami Jai-Alai Looks To Catch On Again Despite Financial Reality

Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald

Out near the Miami Airport there’s a place that used to be one of the hottest spots in Miami. Imagine the perfect mixture of athletics, spectacle, and speed. Jai-Alai. It’s like handball, only you fling the ball and catch the ball with this basket thing.

But it's also more complicated than that, and dangerous. But the way Jai-Alai attendance is growing, in seven years ,followers say it will eclipse baseball.

In the 1950s, Jai-Alai was set to be the next big thing and Miami was at the center of it all. The local arena--or fronton, as it’s called -- was known as the “Yankee Stadium of Jai-Alai.”

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, 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.

Gene Tellez is director of security at the arena. He also worked there back in the 1970’s. “You had to wait on line outside to get in. That's how big it was. You had to wait outside.”

Tellez said it used to be so loud in the stadium that you couldn’t even hear the ball. Now, the sound of that pelota hitting the wall at 180 miles per hour echoes throughout the empty arena.

Bartender Manny Rodriguez has worked at the arena for 35 years, or half his life.

“When (my friends) call me, they say, ‘Manny, you still at Jai-Alai?’” He remembers the old five-star restaurant overlooking the arena. “I used to have 23 waiters and waitresses, 12 busboys, 6 cocktail waitresses, 6 bartenders. I used to be the maitre d’. It was really exciting.”

The restaurant is now closed. The chairs are stacked on top of booths, where celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Frank Sinatra and Gloria Estefan once ordered steak dinners.

Daniel Michelena came from France to play Jai-Alai in Miami. He won a world championship and ten triple crowns. Now he’s a manager at the arena. He says Miami Jai-Alai had the best fronton in the world. On the biggest nights, the betting handle got up to a million dollars. Today, he says, it tops out at around $60,000.

In the late 80s and early 90s, Miami got the Heat, the Marlins, the Panthers and the Florida Lottery and Jai-Alai lost its hold. Then two of Jai Alai’s former executives were violently murdered in connection with recently convicted Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. The neighborhood became more violent, as bands of robbers began targeting tourists.

Now, maintaining Jai-Alai matches bring a loss of a million dollars a year. But having Jai-Alai there allows the company to operate a casino - which opened 2 years ago, and brings in a million dollars a week.

Michelena, the former world champion, who’s been at the arena since its glory days, feels lucky to have been part of it. “You know, sometimes we think it is a shame that the sport died, but also it is amazing that it lasted so, so long.”