January 10, 2012
Jai Alai might be the fastest ball sport in the world - or the fastest ball sport failing to gather a crowd. It was born in Europe's Basque country and transported to the United States, where, for a time, it was a popular betting sport, especially in Florida. But jai alai is struggling to bring in the fans, despite the high dangers involved in playing.
Jai Alai is not child's play. The ball weighs about 150 grams and flies at high speed around a playing court, called a "fronton."
That speed is dangerous and it is what powers the sport.
Long time player John Silvia says the speed of the ball is what first drew him to jai alai.
“The ball averages about 140 miles an hour [about 225 kilometers per hour]. It kind of comes at you like a snake in the air, so it is very difficult to catch. It's very exciting, very fast. I love it!,“ Silvia said.
The players catch and throw the ball with a wicker basket glove called a "cesta" wrapped tightly around one hand.
That, and the ball itself, are features of the game that hark back centuries to the game's origins.
The rules have also changed very little over the years. Players have to keep the ball in motion by hitting it against a wall.
If a player lets the ball go out of bounds or bounce more than once, he is replaced by the next player in line.
The game used to be very popular in many parts of the United States.
“My mom took me when I was a kid to watch, and ever since then I was hooked. The guys were running around and jumping up the wall, and the crowd was screaming when they made good catches. And I was just very excited to see it; I always wanted to do that,” Silvia said.
During its heyday during the mid-20th century, frontons could be found across the country.
Fans turned out by the thousands to be entertained by the sport.
And betting helped make it popular.
Today, Florida is alone in retaining a fan base.
And even here, it is on the wane.
Most bettors have gone elsewhere, says long-time fan Rob Craig.
"Nowadays, a lot of times you come and it's a very empty building, very few players. I think the sport just hasn't invested a lot in rebuilding itself. There is a lot of new competition in the area. There is gambling, there are casinos, there are slots. It's just one of those things where the sport needs to make a true investment and invest into itself," Craig said.
Manager Simon Jackson says Orlando Jai Alai is trying to do that. He says one aim is to help people understand the game more clearly.
"What we are trying to do is explain the sport in its fullest to give people better understanding and help them with their wagers, which is part of what this sport is about. So we are trying to get out more information so that people are not scared," Jackson said.
Jackson says he would like to see the game recapture its popularity. And he says, he believes that can be done with proper marketing and public education.