The Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park in Pompano Beach, Fla. could become the latest gaming venue in South Florida to add live jai alai to its menu of wagering options.
The property has been home to seasonal horse racing for six decades and it is not yet clear whether Isle Casino’s foray into jai alai would mean it would scrap its harness racetrack in favor of a jai alai arena. Cordish Companies CEO David Cordish said it’s possible both sports could co-exist at Isle Casino.
There could be both,” Cordish said in an email to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Just speaking personally I find [jai alai] a fascinating and truly local sport with a great history. There will be a resurgence in the popularity of the sport.”
Isle Casino is owned co-owned by Reno-based Eldorado Resorts and Cordish Companies of Baltimore. Eldorado is the regional gaming company that is acquiring Caesars Entertainment while Cordish owns the Live! Casino & Hotel in Anne Arundel County, Md., one of that state’s biggest gaming properties.
A Jai Alai Renaissance
Often referred to as “the world’s fastest sport,” jai alai can trace its origins back seven centuries and is believed to be a spin on a game developed in the Basque region of Spain called “zesta punta.” The game is played on a court known as a fronton with players controlling a “pilota,” or ball, with a large handheld device called a cesta.
Due to the game’s Hispanic lineage, it remains popular in Spain today and Mexico is home to several frontons as well. Jai alai enjoyed some popularity in the US from the 1950s through the early 1980s, but that success was mostly confined to the East Coast, led by Florida due to the Sunshine State’s large Latino population.
Some of jai alai’s popularity was tied to gambling as it was legal to wager on the sport in states such as Connecticut and Florida. A 1988 labor strike that led to fronton closures in those states and lasted nearly three years was a major blow to the game. That strike occurred just as the popularity of the NFL and NBA started to take off among a new generation of fans and as ESPN was growing, bringing new forms of sports entertainment to wider audiences.
Today, the sport is experiencing a resurgence in South Florida and casinos are driving that revival. Miami’s Magic City is about to put on its second jai alai season and Casino Miami will have another round of the sport in late 2019. The Casino at Dania Beach, home to the prestigious Dania Beach Jai Alai venue, was recently refurbished and those renovations included the jai alai area, according to the Sun Sentinel.
Some casino operators in the region like jai alai not only because it is attracting fans, but also because the game is more cost-effective than dog and horse racing.
Eldorado and Cordish are in the midst of a major redevelopment effort at the site of the Isle Casino. The companies are expected to break ground on the three-part project in 2020. The first phase, forecast for completion in 2022, will include almost 680 residential units, 102,567 square feet of casino gaming space, a 300-person jai alai fronton, and a massive Topgolf practice range.
The full project has an estimated completion date of 2029 and will feature 4,100 residential units, 142,182 square feet of gaming space and 950 hotel rooms.
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