Jai Alai: The Sport That Almost Caught on in the U.S.

Jon Tambourendeguy (right) of France's jai alai team competes during the match against Mexico in 2010. (Photo: Guillaume Bonnaud/AFP/Getty Images).

The ball flies through the air at high speed. It passes dangerously close to a player’s head. His teammate makes a leaping catch and then, in one smooth motion, turns and throws the ball.

This may sound like baseball, but it's not. The game is jai alai, a sport from Spain's Basque country that was first imported to the United States more than century ago — yet not many people know about it.

Jai alai is similar to racquetball, but instead of racquets, players have curved baskets that are strapped to their hands. The goal is to catch the ball, or the pelota, in the basket, called a cesta, and then throw it back against the front wall in one smooth, constant motion. The added leverage provided by the cesta is what allows the players to throw the ball at such high rates of speed. The pelota routinely hits speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, and the fastest jai alai throw ever recorded was 188 miles per hour. If the opponents cannot catch and return the ball, and the ball stays in bounds, the thrower earns a point.

The sport's court is designed with spectators in mind. The 175-foot long court has three walls. The fourth wall is for viewers, who can sit see all the action from an ideal angle. Jai alai venues are called frontons.

A Gamble in the U.S.

Two men playing jai alai in Tampa in November 1989
Two men playing jai alai in Tampa in November 1989. Scott Halleran /Allsport/Getty Images

Jai alai was one of the fastest growing spectator sports in the U.S. in the last half of the 20th century, according to SB Nation. The high-speed, acrobatic catches and throws, and inherent danger (players were not required to wear helmets until the 1960s, and injuries from flying balls are still common) drew fans and curiosity-seekers in droves.

The first fronton on U.S. soil opened in 1904 in St. Louis. Twenty years later, the first professional venue opened in Florida, which would become jai alai's American heartland. Many frontons were also established up the East Coast, but their popularity waned by the 1980s, and most closed soon thereafter.

Jai alai enjoyed a brief run in Las Vegas during the 1970s. The sport's Sin City foray highlighted one of the main reasons for its one-time popularity: gambling. Jai alai's style of scoring and player rotation makes it ideal for parimutuel betting. This is the same style of betting used in horse racing.

The jai alai venues that remain open today are focused on gambling. All of the surviving arenas are in Florida. At the height its popularity in the 1970s, some Florida venues would routinely see thousands of fans each night. People would come to bet, but many were there just to watch and enjoy the excitement of the game. The state has passed regulations meant to keep jai alai alive. Casino operations are allowed to have various other forms of gambling — such as poker and horse racing simulcasts — as long as they also offer jai alai. These regulations have kept jai alai going on American soil.

Failure to Launch

Players practice in an empty jai alai venue in Miami
Players practice in an empty jai alai venue at Miami Casino. Lee Cannon/flickr

So what happened to jai alai? Why did it never rise above niche sport status?

Just when the game was set to explode into the mainstream in the late 1980s and early '90s, the players went on strike. Inferior part-timers were brought in during the strike, but the buzz surrounding the game was not the same. By the time things got back on track, jai alai was back to being a niche sport that had little mainstream buzz.

Also, despite being a great live spectator sport, jai alai is not very TV-friendly. With the advent of cable TV and channels like ESPN, there were simply other, more televisual niche sports to choose from.

Though frontons outside of Florida have closed, and attendance numbers have dropped, the sport has not disappeared. Pros from overseas still come to Florida to play, and the best players can still earn six-figure salaries. The players also get prize money for winning a match, and they can earn a small percentage of the gambling revenue.

Despite its decline, jai alai still has a following. Interestingly, one of the newest frontons in Florida involves no gambling whatsoever. Built in the city of St. Petersburg, it is a public court that is specifically for amateur players.

The hope amongst local enthusiasts is that the new court will make jai alai accessible as a sport to play not a sport to gamble on. Can a new generation of homegrown players revitalize the sport and make it about more than gambling?