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An obituary for a sport and a space: one man says goodbye to jai-alai in Dania Beach

Ryan Esdale playing jai-alai in a uniform in front of a green background with a sign that says Columba
Casino @ Dania Beach
Ryan Esdale playing jai-alai

Ryan Esdale would not have been born without jai-alai in Dania Beach. Reflecting on how his favorite sport has shaped his family and his entire life, he shares what makes the game significant even as the fronton in Dania closes its doors after nearly 70 years.

In 2009, WLRN's Under The Sun program explored ways that people in South Florida make a living.

Listeners met Ryan Esdale. At the time, he was a 17-year old announcer for jai-alai games at the Casino @ Dania Beach.

He dreamed about becoming a professional player someday. But he also saw the crowds dwindling at games, compared to the sport's glory days.

Fast-forward to 2021: Ryan is still working at the Casino @ Dania Beach. One of the "originals" there, he is 30 years old now.

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WLRN caught up with him as he processed the news that the casino would be ending jai-alai games after nearly 70 years.

In his final love letter to the sport, he expresses his gratitude for all that it has given him.

Trina Sargalski produced the original radio story. Caitie Muñoz and Alicia Zuckerman produced this update together.

A excerpt of Ryan's comments are below. For his full comments — and to hear how they compare to his 17 year-old ambitions — listen to the full audio above.

Somebody came up to me and said, "Oh, you heard the news?' and I was like, "No, what's going on?' They said, "Oh, jai-alai's done for good."

I mean, I knew that I was coming to an end. At some point, I thought maybe we had another year or so to enjoy it. But then when I heard that the end of November was going to be the real final date, that's when it really sunk in and hit me pretty hard.

My parents actually met at Dania Jai-Alai a long time ago, and I've actually been working at the building for more than half my life. So if you think about it, without the building, I wouldn't even be alive.

They call me one of the originals.

I was a ballboy announcer, I was a referee. I was even a food runner for the food stands. I was a poker chip counter for upstairs in the poker room. And then I became a greeter. Now I’m a casino host. And I wouldn't change that job for the world. 

I always hear the same stuff. "This place used to be the greatest."

The Casino @ Dania Beach

Everybody always talks about how the stands were filled with 5,000 people watching the game. But then again, at the same time, they say, well, that was the only choice they had.

I make sure I stop in for at least a couple of minutes per night just to get my jai-alai fix, because I know I won't be able to do that much longer and I got to take advantage of the time I can.

I am grateful for the many years after that I was able to still see the sport and enjoy it. It was bound to happen. But hey, what can we do? We saw the best.

We saw the best. 

It makes you realize you can't take things for granted, especially something that you would think that it's going to last a long time, a sport.

But no, not even a sport can last forever.

I will be there for the final performance. I'll have to let my boss know, put me aside for a few hours. I'm going to be in the fronton.

WLRN multimedia producer Alyssa Ramos contributed to this report.

Caitie Muñoz, formerly Switalski, leads the WLRN Newsroom as Director of Daily News & Original Live Programming. Previously she reported on news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News.
Alicia Zuckerman is Editorial Director at WLRN, where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.
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