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What Is Jai Alai? The Ultimate Guide To The World’s Fastest Sport

There’s a good chance the average sports fan in America has never heard of jai alai, the sport.

There is a good chance, however, that the average craft beer fan has heard of Jai Alai IPA. You can find it in bars, restaurants, and grocery stores all over the United States, celebrated by beer lovers for its refreshing tropical taste.

In fact, many sports fans have probably enjoyed Jai Alai the beer, but have yet to experience the thrill that is the sport. It’s been a sport on the decline since the 1970s, but jai alai is finally seeing a resurgence today.

An organization called Magic City Jai Alai in Miami recently gained notoriety for recruiting former University of Miami football and baseball athletes to play the sport professionally. Former Miami football players like Tanard Davis, who won a Super Bowl ring as a wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts, are now playing the sport, which requires speed, agility, stamina, finesse, and the ability to read your opponent’s body language.

When we recently talked to Tanard Davis during a match, he said “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.”

Jai Alai – A Guide

Magic City Jai Alai recently announced a rights deal with ESPN for their upcoming Battle Court season, bringing televised broadcasts of the sport into millions of homes.

That’s time to acquaint yourself with a sport dubbed “one of the best kept secrets…”

So grab yourself a Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing and let us introduce you to the sport that has been dubbed by some as “the ballet with bullets” or “the fastest sport in the world.”

Our goal: The next time you see a bright green and orange can of Jai Alai IPA, you’ll know the rich history behind its name.

Watch the video below for more…

What Is Jai Alai?

Once a wildly popular sport across the globe, including the U.S., jai alai has seen its up and downs. The sport even faced extinction, slowly fading from the American sports scene. Now that it’s making a serious comeback, here’s everything you need to know to become a part of the revival.

A Quick History of Jai Alai

Jai alai is a ball sport, similar to racquetball, that traces its origins back over four hundred years to the Basque region of Spain. The game, whose name translates to “merry festival,” was initially played on Sundays and holidays at the local church.

The sport would gain popularity over time. It spread to Latin America in the 1800s before debuting in the United States at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

Arrival In The United States

Jai alai took the U.S. by storm. The combination of incredible athleticism and ever-present danger fascinated Americans – especially those looking for a gambling option over horse and dog racing.

The jai alai hype was very much real. In states like Florida, it was actually the one ball sport people could legally bet on for the last 50 years. The Sunshine State would even become an honorary capital for jai alai in the United States.

Popularity for the sport peaked during the 1970s, when tens of thousands would gather for championship matches. In 1976, for example, a match featuring some of the best players in the world drew over 15,000 fans to Miami Jai-Alai Fronton.

jai alai

Crime And Player Strikes Plague The 1980s

Unfortunately, jai alai saw its popularity decline during the 80s. Like many other sports tied to gambling, it too would eventually become entangled with the world of organized crime.

Some Americans may remember the 1981 murder of American businessman Roger Wheeler. After uncovering an embezzlement scheme at his business, World Jai Alai, Wheeler was murdered by Whitey Bulger and the Winter Hill Gang. The high-profile crime led many fans to associate jai alai with mob-related activity. Allegations of match-fixing only helped deter fans further from the sport.

To make matters even worse, a 1988 players’ strike saw a majority of the talented, Spanish-born players replaced with American amateurs. The change drastically lowered the quality of play and attendance dwindled.

Over time, jai alai faded back into obscurity. Many locations outside of Florida closed and the sport took a backseat to other gambling endeavors once again.

How To Play Jai Alai

For anyone interested in learning the game, it’s fairly simple. The basic gist is to make the ball difficult for your opponent to catch. There’s plenty more to learn, but once you do, the door opens to one of the most exciting sports in the world.

The Equipment

Jai alai is played with two essential pieces of equipment: the pelota and cesta.

The ball (pelota) is one of the hardest and fastest balls in sports, reaching speeds of up to 188 mph. Made from rubber and covered in two layers of hardened goat skin, it’s only slightly smaller than a baseball but harder than a golf ball.

Cestas are curved baskets, woven from Pyrenees Mountain reeds, that are used to catch and throw the pelota. It’s attached to the wrist as players’ hands are inserted into a leather glove and secured with a tie.

The Court

Jai alai is typically played on a three-walled court, called a cancha.

Like a soccer field, there is no standard size for a cancha. On average, they measure 176 feet long (almost 2x the length of a basketball court) and 45 feet wide with high ceilings. The court is divided horizontally by 14 parallel lines, with line 1 closest to the front wall and line 14 near the back wall.

With all canchas featuring a left wall, fans can spectate games from the open right side. This also means players must wear their cestas on their right hand, sorry lefties.

jai alai

The Rules

Jai alai can be played in two different formats: individually (Head to Head) or in a team (Battle Court). In hopes of reigniting interest in the sport, the rules have actually been adjusted to better suit American audiences.

“It’s just like tennis, you have to win 2 out of 3 sets to win a match. Each set is played up to 6 points, like 6 games in a tennis set. And we just think people will catch onto it quicker. (It’s) easier to identify and the players stay out there until there’s a winner and loser. I think that’s what sports fans want to see. Somebody wins, somebody loses. It’s very clear cut,” Scott Savin, COO of Magic City Jai Alai, explains to BroBible.

During matches, players take turns catching and throwing the pelota against the front wall to score points. The goal is to make it difficult for the opponent to catch and return. Opposing players must catch the pelota before its second bounce and keep it in constant motion for their throw.

Points are scored when a player:

  • Fails to catch the pelota before its second bounce
  • Fails to keep the pelota in constant motion
  • Throws the pelota out of bounds
  • Serves without bouncing the pelota between lines 4 and 7
  • Interferes with the opponent’s attempt to play

The combination of simple rules, fast-paced action, and of course plenty of danger make jai alai one of the most exciting sports for both spectators and players alike.

Where Is Jai Alai At Today?

Everyone loves a comeback story and that’s exactly what jai alai is delivering in 2022.

Today, Magic City Jai Alai is the last remaining active fronton in the United States. How has Magic City survived when others could not? Well, COO Scott Savin has chosen some rather unorthodox methods to keep the sport alive.

“If we go back about eight years, we were managing Dania Jai alai in Dania, Florida, up near Fort Lauderdale,” Savin tells BroBible. “It was primarily all players from the Spanish or the Basque region of Spain. I just asked them one day off the cuff, why are there no American players? They said because don’t grow up playing Jai alai. American kids grow up playing baseball, basketball, football. I said, ‘but you’re telling me if I couldn’t take some decent American athletes, maybe they never played Jai alai before couldn’t I teach them?’ And they were all, ‘no.'”

“When we decided we were gonna play jai alai here, I said we’re gonna try it my way. We’re gonna go recruit athletes who had never played jai alai before. We’re gonna teach ’em to play the game of jai alai, and that’s how we’re gonna get our professional players as opposed to the Spanish guys or the Basque players from Spain.”

jai alai

Most notable is the fact that Savin recruited many of his players from the University of Miami, as opposed to Spanish-born players. The results have been quite impressive too, with players from Magic City Jai Alai winning both the singles and doubles in the 2021 U.S. National Championships.

Savin adds: “The first year they were indeed terrible. I started thinking, ‘oh, maybe these, the guys were right that you can’t.’ But by year two it was clicking. And year three, one of our guys lost in the finals of the US National Championships. And then last year, two of our guys won the doubles, one guy won the single.”

Savin concludes that the sport still has a long way to go, but “athletes are athletes and they can learn to play any sport, if they take the time and the effort to do.”

While matches no longer draw crowds in the thousands, the sport has found a new home on TikTok, in addition to its broadcast rights deal with ESPN.

So if you’re interested in catching a game, but don’t live within a reasonable distance, you can watch Magic City Jai Alai via TikTok live streams.

With jai alai set to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023, it’s the perfect time to check out the sport – especially if you find yourself in Miami during peak jai alai season.

Sean Costello Avatar
Staff writer for BroBible. Sean is a graduate of the University of Southern California and a lifelong Bay Area sports fan. He also supports Chelsea F.C. and Scuderia Ferrari along with additional interests in esports and film.