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Rebuilding Jai Alai: Athletes Aim To Save Their Sport Through Community, Gameplay and Technology

Jai alai players (Photo courtesy Benny Bueno)

Christopher Bueno recalls watching his father play jai alai on a Friday night, like the ritual of nighttime American football. Once an Olympic sport, jai alai now struggles to find an audience in the United States. Bueno, his father, and others in the jai alai community work to resurrect the sport and keep it alive. Holding onto hope and passion, the jai alai community looks to regain the sport’s popularity before extinction.

In the family of tennis, paddleball and handball, jai alai involves bouncing a ball off a walled space at a high rate of speed with a handheld tool called a cesta, which is handmade out of wicker. The server throws the ball against a wall, and a player must catch the ball in one fluid motion after no more than one bounce on the floor to score points. Players play in a rotation until a team scores seven points.

A BIT OF HISTORY

Basque pelota, an early variation of jai alai, was an official Olympic sport in the 1900 Paris games. Later, it was only a demonstration sport at the 1924 Paris games as well as 1968 in Mexico City and 1992 in Barcelona. In these cities, Basque pelota was a popular sport among the people.

Guernica Jai alai Frontón - Basque Country, Spain (Photo By Zarateman - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=59738832)
Guernica Jai alai Frontón – Basque Country, Spain (Photo By Zarateman – Own work, CC0)

Held every four years in various locations worldwide, the modern-day Olympics are grand expressions of national pride, but the early Olympics held different meanings.

“Early on, people celebrated the gods through athletics. The ancient Olympics and all these other Crown Games were always held as part of a religious festival,” says Dave Lunt, assistant professor of history at Southern Utah University. “Over time, they grew because they were popular and people liked it, and it was important to honor the gods.”

Lunt mentions David Sansone’s ideas about Greek athletics being “ritual sacrifices of energy.” Winning the Olympic games earned athletes a “great reputation and glory” which the Greeks called kleos, meaning fame and fortune.

Even in its preliminary stages, the Olympic games were adaptable and evolved.

“In ancient Greece, they tinkered with their program all the time. It probably had to do with [a sport] just not being popular; people did not like watching it. They used to have these mule cart races in the ancient Olympics, but it did not last. In modern times, we have seen it with baseball,” Lunt says.

Following a peak of popularity in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s, jai alai lost its grip on full-blown success and recognition.

“The sport of jai alai has never had the opportunity to grow,” says Benny Bueno, operations manager of The Casino at Dania Beach in Florida, U.S.A. and a former jai alai player. “In the ’70s and ’80s, it was flourishing because it was a business. The business was bringing in customers, the customers were spending money and because of that, the companies were making money, and the players were getting paid.”

Bueno continues: “Somewhere along the line, between casinos, poker rooms, online betting, the competition started overtaking the game, and the business started to slow down.”

The sport of jai alai has never had the opportunity to grow.

According to Bueno, at the height of its popularity in the U.S., jai alai had 15 facilities: four in the Northeast — three in Connecticut plus one in Rhode Island — and the rest in Florida, specifically larger cities like Tampa, Miami, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

Now, only two facilities remain in the entire U.S. in Dania Beach and Miami, mainly because Florida is the only place in the U.S. where betting on jai alai is legal.

Miami Jai Alai fronton Miami Jai Alai fronton (By Lander Eizagirre - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29635717)
Miami Jai Alai fronton Miami Jai Alai fronton (By Lander Eizagirre – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

‘IT’S A GRASSROOTS EFFORT’

Jai alai’s popularity needs to experience an increase soon. Otherwise, the lack of revenue streams and players on the roster will continue, leaving the sport with no suitable path.

Bueno notes the recent popularity of pickleball, with NFL quarterback Tom Brady joining the ownership of a pickleball team, as a way for jai alai to gain similar momentum:

It’s a grassroots effort. It’s 10 people playing it, a hundred people playing it, a thousand people playing it. Then, what happens is, now you have got something that everybody is interested in and involved in. If there’s no gasoline, you can’t drive cars.

“Our biggest challenge is players. There’s not a lot of players,” Bueno continues. “There’s no longer any amateur facilities here in the United States.”

To fix this, Bueno scouts for jai alai players in Spain and France, where the sport is in a resurgence. Bueno looks for players in their 20s who would fit nicely on a jai alai roster for two to three months in the U.S.

Jai alai’s popularity in Spain and France stems from the countries’ cultural ties to the sport, government aid, and the multiple facilities for amateur and professional players. These resources allow kids and teenagers to pick up the sport at an early age for little to no cost.

EXPOSURE IN THE COMMUNITY

In the U.S., Christopher Bueno, a professional jai-alai player and son of Benny Bueno, found a love for the sport by watching his father’s career, which began before he was born.

Jai alai player (Photo courtesy Benny Bueno)
Jai alai player (Photo courtesy Benny Bueno)

“Watching my dad play is part of it. I got to play with him, and it has sentimental value,” Bueno says. “Also, it is a super cool sport once you learn how to play, you’re good at it, and you get to a good level.”

Bueno points to a new draft system at Magic City Jai Alai, where he plays frontcourt, for creating a more robust team unit. In this draft, players get selected on a first-through-sixth basis. Then, each team’s players compete based on their coordinating draft order.

Watching my dad play is part of it. I got to play with him, and it has sentimental value.

“At the end of the season whoever has the most points, plays in a championship. That’s the kind of team structure we’re creating now. But until then, there hasn’t been any team structure. I’ve seen very cutthroat, dry locker rooms,” Bueno says.

Bueno sees this unique environment as an opportunity for jai alai to appeal to more of the public.

“When you have a slump and you’re trying to do better, you have a support staff for that, and it has its positives,” he says. “The other positive is from a fan perspective. It gives them a team to cheer for, which is more of what the management is aiming for.”

Bueno passes on the generational love for jai alai from father to son by taking his 11-year-old son to play at racquetball courts. He says these courts are too small and must be rebuilt to work for a regulation jai alai game.

A commissioner for Bueno’s local school district recently showed interest in jai alai, and Bueno hopes jai alai courts can soon become part of local parks.

“I see a kind of opportunity with this commissioner who’s interested, so I told him to come out and see what it would take to get parks and recs involved,” Bueno says. “I hope that it works. I hope that the buzz comes around.”

SOCIAL MEDIA AND VIDEO GAMES

According to Bueno, reaching a younger audience is crucial. He already has a solution in mind: a video game.

“To grow the sport, what it needs is to build courts in parks and make it accessible for kids to play,” Bueno says. “You complement that with a video game where they would be able to play before they even physically play. They’ll be like, ‘This is awesome. I want to try in real life.’”

With the younger generation’s increased use of video games, crafting a jai alai video game would bring the sport to a demographic that would give it the boost it needs.

“Once kids like it and they have their favorite players, they build their own teams, their own characters, they learn from their shots, and it takes it to a different level,” Bueno says.

With the younger generation’s increased use of video games, crafting a jai alai video game would bring the sport to a demographic that would give it the boost it needs.

Building a social media presence for jai alai is also a priority. The World Jai Alai League has almost 350,000 followers on TikTok. Once a week, the players participate in a “media day” to film reels and TikToks, as it’s “good for the popularity of the game,” Bueno says.

THE OLYMPICS AND BEYOND

As for a return to the Olympics, Bueno says “everybody wants to represent where they come from,” and that would be beneficial for the players and the game.

However, the International Olympic Committee states a sport must follow various codes to make an appearance in the Olympic program. At least 75 countries must also play the sport.

“If they introduce a new sport, they have to take out a sport. They only have so much room to fit it in there,” Lunt says.

Despite all the effort put into expanding jai alai, Bueno knows it will take much more than just love for the sport.

“How long before this becomes profitable? We don’t have enough time to get 10- and-12-year-olds to fall in love with the game,” Bueno says. “The real problem is that there’s a race against time.”

Jai alai players (Photo courtesy Benny Bueno)
Jai alai players (Photo courtesy Benny Bueno)
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