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Jai alai, once exotic, is now a thing of the past

The Sporting Life
By TIM LEHNERT  |  July 9, 2008
jaialaiinside.jpg

Thirty years ago, Newport Grand’s 3000-seat jai alai fronton was packed with fans wagering on brightly uniformed players whose scoop-like cestas hurled little balls against a mas-sive granite wall at speeds of up to 150 mph. Besides the stakes, the sport offered an infusion of something alluring and slightly exotic.

That time is long gone: The fronton, which limped along with sparse crowds in the ’90s, closed in 2003, and the emphasis has since moved to the video lottery terminals (VLTs) that dominate Newport and Twin River in Lincoln.

Jai alai can still be seen at Newport Grand, but only in the “simulcast theater,” where matches from Florida are broadcast for a few hours on weekends.

On one Saturday afternoon, Tom Risso and a fellow Middletown retiree, Herb Spence, sat next to each other, watching the jai alai feed on a small monitor, with tall cans of Narragansett nearby. Monitors in the surrounding carrels were tuned to  horse and dog races, as were the big screens. “It’s dwindling,” said Risso of jai alai. “I think it’s on its way out.”

Jai alai’s local fade can be attributed to various factors; a three-year players’ strike in the early ’90s, and particularly the opening of Foxwoods in 1992 and of Mohegan Sun in 1996. To provide additional revenue, VLTs were approved for Newport in 1992, piggybacking on the existing jai alai gaming license. The video terminals went on to devour their sponsor, as patrons parked themselves in front of the machines, leaving the players a near-deserted arena in which to hurl their pelotas.

Following the demise of local jai alai, a few of the players (most of who were Spanish Basques) stayed in the area, and a handful found work in Florida, but most returned to their home countries.

Miguel Fernandez, who now plays in Dania, Florida, has fond memories of his six years in Rhode Island, particularly Newport with its beaches, where he enjoyed running in the winter. “I didn’t want to move,” says the Tijuana, Mexico-raised Fernandez, but the back-courter found he had no choice if he wanted to keep competing.

The former fronton has since been obliterated. Under a deal with the state, Newport Grand is putting 835 new slot machines in the space that used to house the jai alai arena; the move will bring the total number of VLTs there to more than 2100 by this summer.

The question of whether Newport and Twin River will morph into full-blown casinos, or face new challenges from other gambling parlors, will continue to be a subject of fierce jockeying.

One thing is certain, however: whatever gambling’s future in Rhode Island, it won’t involve a cesta, a pelota, or a fronton.

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  Topics: This Just In , Gambling, Tim Lehnert
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