Jai alai (pronounced ‘hi-uh-lie’) was a wildly popular sport several decades ago, but chances are you probably haven’t heard of it before.
Hailing from the Basque region of Spain, jai alai is played with a ball and curved baskets attached to players’ wrists, called cestas. With the ball reaching speeds of up to 188 mph, it’s been dubbed by some as “the fastest sport in the world.”
Back in the day, jai alai was a staple in the Miami scene. In 1976, for example, a match featuring some of the best players in the world drew in over 15,000 fans.
While the sport has remained in some Florida casinos, it has largely been in decline ever since. Flash-forward to 2022 and jai alai is seeing a resurgence in a rather unconventional way.
How Jai Alai Is Making A Comeback in 2022
Former Miami Hurricane athletes, TikTok live streams, and sports betting aren’t exactly the combination you’d expect, but it’s just what the sport needed in this new era.
Recruiting American Athletes From The U
By the 2010s, a majority of players came from the Basque region of Spain. Why? It’s simple, American kids don’t grow up playing the sport. It’s not easy to teach either, taking years to be even proficient in just the basics.
Ben Gadsden, a Magic City Jai Alai player, explains how it took him seven months of training just to learn how to play.
“And to be real with you, we needed every single one of those months because my first week I almost killed somebody. … We needed that to learn to respect the ball and respect what they call form and posture.”
With the jai alai already in decline, it seemed unlikely that more Americans would pick up the sport. But Scott Savin, COO of Magic City Jai Alai, wasn’t fully convinced and his efforts have actually been a major contributing factor to the sport’s renaissance.
“Athletes are athletes and they can play any sport if they take the time and effort to do so.” – Scott Savin, COO of Magic City Jai Alai
When setting up Magic City Jai Alai in 2018, Savin decided to recruit American athletes who had never played before. More specifically, he recruited former athletes from The U.
It certainly wasn’t the smoothest of transitions to start off. Even Savin admits these newly-converted players were “indeed terrible” initially, but it started to click over time. By 2021, players from Magic City Jai Alai had won both the singles and doubles in the US National Championships.
Chad Barnes, a former UM wide receiver, reveals how his transition from football to jai alai had its ups and downs. Some skills can transfer over, but it’s still a very different sport.
“Well, of course at wide receiver hand-eye coordination was key and in this sport very key. Hand-eye coordination is very important, especially with how fast the ball is going. [It is the] fastest ball sport. So, I think the craziest transition was putting a cesta, that glove, in your hand and being able to catch. And you can’t close your hand.”
Even Tanard Davis, a former NFL player who has a Super Bowl ring with the Indianapolis Colts, told BroBible he believes “jai alai is where it’s at.”
“It’s fast, it’s competitive… It’s intense. And that’s what I love about the sport. Everyone asks me if you could do it all over again, would you play football or Jai-Alai? What I know about Jai-Alai and if the wages get better, I would choose Jai-Alai before football. It’s a sport you can never master because you’re gonna always go against three things. The ball, the court, and the opponent.”
Magic City Jai Alai Finds A Home On TikTok
Finding new roads to success should honestly be their motto.
To help grow the sport’s audience, Magic City Jai Alai is broadcasted via TikTok live streams. While not a traditional media outlet for sports, it has gained major traction with behind-the-scenes looks.
“I think people have gravitated towards our content, especially on TikTok because obviously this sport is so strange and it’s so niche and weird and unique and it has all these nuances. And I think TikTok is the perfect home for something like that. But I also think we have amazing personalities on our roster. All of our players are so competitive,” Lindsay Savin, Dir. of Comms at Magic City Casino, explains to BroBible.
Magic City Jai Alai has also inked a multi-year deal with ESPN. Tune into ESPN3 starting Sept. 23rd through Nov. 18th to watch Battle Court Season II, a new team jai-alai concept that started in 2022 with head-to-head competition every week.
Gambling Remains A Big Draw For Jai Alai
Sports betting and jai alai go hand in hand. In states like Florida, it was actually the one ball sport people could legally bet on for the last 50 years.
It’s incredibly fun to watch and arguably more fun to bet on. Savin and his team at Magic City Jai Alai have even adjusted the rules to make the sport more palatable to casual American audiences.
“So that’s why we had to make a change and get away from parimutuels. ’cause we’re like, look, we’re going after the mainstream sports fan. This is the guy who’s got his fantasy football team or every Sunday during football season of Saturday college football…,” Savin tells BroBible.
“You’re gonna bet on, you’re playing against me and you’re gonna be -150 and I’m gonna be +125, just straight up mano a mano. They bet on you 150 to win 100. They bet on me 100, I beat you by some miracle, 125.”
Today, Magic City Jai Alai is available to online bettors in seven states thanks to a partnership with BetRivers. But as the number of states with legal sports gambling increases, so will the opportunities for jai alai.
Beer & Sport All In One
Combining high-level athleticism with ever-present danger, jai alai is like nothing you’ve seen before. It’s clearly niche and maybe even slightly strange. However, with basic knowledge of the rules, any casual sports fan will enjoy the experience.
So as you kick back and explore the world of a newfound sport, there’s no better pairing than Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing.
“I thought the game nicely encapsulated the spirit of American hoppy beers: over-the-top, borderline aggressive, yet still full of nuance.” – Joey Redner, Founder of Cigar City Brewing.
Cigar City Brewing uses six different hop varietals for a bold, citrusy India Pale Ale that clocks in at 7.5% ABV.
Jai Alai, the sport, still has a long road ahead, but it’s finally back from the brink of extinction. With its 100th anniversary coming in 2023, Cigar City Brewing has just the beer for the occasion.
Next time you’re scrolling through TikTok or placing a sports bet, grab some IPAs from Cigar City Brewing and tune into Magic City Jai Alai.
The comeback story is just getting started.