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Closing Confirmed by Dania




Jai alai in Dania Beach won’t be around to celebrate its 70th birthday.
Owners of The Casino @ Dania Beach confirmed in a statement Tuesday that the sport will not return in 2022 to the venue where it has been played since 1953.
Owners of the landmark parimutuel, among the last survivors of a long and steady decline in jai alai’s popularity in Florida, recently told the sport’s players union that they plan to shut down the game for good after its current season ends Nov. 28.
“It is with a heavy heart that we say a fond farewell to the sport of Jai-Alai in Dania Beach,” said Arnaldo Suarez, CEO of The Casino @ Dania Beach, in an emailed statement. “Generations of fans have enjoyed this exciting sport in our fronton for almost 70 years.”
Its departure will leave jai alai with an uncertain future in South Florida, 97 years after the state’s first jai alai fronton opened in Miami in 1924.
The Casino @ Dania Beach, owned by a group of Argentine investors incorporated as Dania Entertainment Center LLC, is asking the union to negotiate a buyout of the remaining four months of the 26 players’ contracts, which were to have lasted through the final four months of the current season that ends in May 2022, said Leon Shepard, president of the International Jai Alai Players Association.
A collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the union runs through March 2023. In that agreement, players took pay cuts and agreed to a shorter schedule to keep the sport alive in Dania Beach, Shepard said.
The decision comes in the wake of a negotiated agreement between the Florida Legislature and the Seminole tribe last spring allowing parimutuels throughout the state to “decouple” their unprofitable horse racing and jai alai attractions that they had been forced since 2004 to operate as a condition of being allowed to offer more profitable casino games.
Union vice president Inigo Gorostola, a 20-year veteran jai alai player at the Dania Beach venue, said jai alai hasn’t been profitable in recent years.
RELATED: Jai alai alive and well at The Casino at Dania Beach »
Still, the 26 Dania Beach players, including five in the United States on work visas, would rather continue playing than negotiate a buyout, Gorostola said. “We love jai alai. We love what we do. We’re willing to play out the collective bargaining agreement,” he said.
Jeff Conway, a jai alai fan and amateur player, first reported the decision to eliminate jai alai at the Casino @ Dania Beach on a blog he authors called Pelota Press. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Conway said the amount of money bet on games has fallen dramatically over the past two or three decades, from more than $100,000 per performance of eight to 10 games to around $20,000.
The Dania Beach venue, which eliminated the words jai alai from its name in 2016, once regularly drew crowds of 7,000 to 10,000 per day. Casino games moved into the main arena in 2016, displacing the jai alai game to a 500-seat arena that is never filled, Conway said.
RELATED: Dania Beach Casino Jai Alai open for winter season »
“Jai alai was so exciting when the place was packed and people were screaming their brains out,” he said. “Now it’s real quiet and numb in there.”
The players would like the opportunity to finish their season, Shepard said.
A shutdown would leave Florida — once home to jai alai frontons in cities across the state — with just a handful of venues offering the sport. Magic City Casino offers the sport in a reduced-size arena. Casino Miami, built in the 1920s, finished its most recent schedule in January, while Calder Casino in Miami Gardens wrapped up its most recent season in August.
Whether those venues also plan to jettison their jai alai operations now that state law no longer requires them to continue playing remains to be seen, Conway and Gorostola said.
A jai alai player hurls the ball during a match at Dania Jai Alai on June 9, 2009, in Dania Beach.
A jai alai player hurls the ball during a match at Dania Jai Alai on June 9, 2009, in Dania Beach. (Sun Sentinel, File)
A woman who answered the phone at Casino Miami said that jai alai would be returning there in November.
Played on courts with three high walls, jai alai resembles racquetball, except that the racquet is a long curved basket. Spectators bet on round-robin tournaments waged among eight teams, with payoffs going to betters who correctly chose winners, trifectas, quinellas and other racing-type combinations.
Popularized in the Basque region of Spain, it made its way to the U.S. via Latin America early in the 20th century. By 1926, jai alai had found a permanent home in the U.S., at the current Casino Miami structure once dubbed jai alai’s “Yankee Stadium.”
RELATED: Say goodbye to Fort Lauderdale’s ‘Yankee’ and Lockhart stadiums | Photo galleries »
The reasons for jai alai’s decline date back to the 1980s when the professional jai alai players union went on strike for what turned out to be three years. At about the same time, the Florida Lottery was created, giving residents and tourists a new gambling opportunity. Then casino gambling arrived on cruise ships and Indian reservations, prompting the parimutuels to seek legalization of card games and slots on their properties.

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The Dania Beach jai alai fronton opened in December 1953, following three years of conflict between gambling proponents and southeast Broward residents who argued that the area did not need another business that attracted bookmakers, gambling addicts and other unsavory characters.
But the business interests prevailed, and the Dania fronton opened in December 1953 with seating for 3,400, a restaurant, two cocktail lounges and four snack bars.
It was built for $1.5 million, which would be about $15.3 million in today’s dollars.
RELATED: Dania Jai Alai casino reopens after $60 million makeover »
Jai alai in Dania Beach isn’t the only once-popular parimutuel that could disappear in the wake of the “decoupling” bill.
Isle Casino Pompano, another longtime parimutuel that has seen its casino growth outstrip interest in its longtime harness racing attraction, is widely expected to drop its racing activities as well. Currently, the property’s website shows live racing returning in October and running through the end of April.

DaniaClosing

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