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Is jai alai coming back to Tampa? Hillsborough commissioner eyes Fowler Avenue location for sports' return

Jai alai, once deemed the fastest sport in the world, drew thousands when it was played in Tampa from 1953 to 1998.
Jai alai, once deemed the fastest sport in the world, drew thousands when it was played in Tampa from 1953 to 1998.
Published Aug. 3, 2015

TAMPA — When the jai alai fronton on S Dale Mabry Highway closed in 1998, many lamented Tampa losing a piece of its cultural fabric. But few predicted the sport would ever return.

Attendance was down. Wagers had dropped. And new major sports franchises had stolen the attention of Tampa's transient fan base.

But Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist dropped a cesta-sized surprise last week on his fellow board members. He announced that a group of investors has been working for a year to bring jai alai back to Tampa.

Crist was short on specifics, and remained tight-lipped about the investors in an interview last week with the Tampa Bay Times.

But he said the talks are serious and the investors are looking at three sites on Fowler Avenue: near U.S. 301, near U.S. 41 and at the soon-to-be redeveloped University Mall. Crist's preference is at the mall.

"What it could possibly mean to that area is a significant entertainment draw," Crist said. "It would cause people visiting Tampa Bay to come up there who wouldn't otherwise come up there."

For the uninitiated, jai alai — pronounced hi-lie — is a Spanish sport that loosely resembles racquetball. Players sling a hard rubber ball called a pelota at a wall using their cestas, banana-shaped wood-and-reed baskets, to score points on an opponent. Because of the high speeds at which the balls travel, it was for a time deemed the fastest sport in the world.

Jai alai gained a foothold in Tampa in 1953 with the opening of the Dale Mabry fronton, or arena. Thanks partly to the region's large Spanish and Latino population, it consistently drew thousands of spectators on weekend nights during the peak of its popularity and millions of dollars in wagers annually from spectators who would gamble on the outcomes of the matches.

A handful of frontons still operate around the state, but jai alai left Tampa in 1998. The lottery was often blamed for siphoning gambling's share of disposable incomes. A two-year player strike in the late 1980s didn't help.

Mark Beiro, a well-known national boxing announcer who was the voice of Tampa jai alai as the public address announcer during its heyday, said there were management issues, too. Frontons struggled to effectively incorporate card games and other forms of gambling onsite, he said, and marketing to new Floridians was lackluster.

"You had a new influx of people and they would pass a billboard, and they didn't know what 'jay-ah-lay-a' was," Beiro said. "Instead of reinvesting and reintroducing the public on what it was, they kept cutting the advertising budget drastically."

Could its popularity rise again?

"When they open that from the beginning they're going to be at the foot of the mountain going up a slippery slope," Beiro said. "But there's no reason jai alai can't succeed. It has in the past."

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Part of the uphill climb is securing a jai alai parimutuel license. Crist said the current license holder is waiting on the gaming compact between the Legislature and the Seminole Tribe. Additionally, if Tallahassee decides to expand card rooms in Florida, it could give the license more value.

Then there's finding a place for it. Already, Jeff Vinik turned down a pitch from Crist and the investors to make jai alai an entertainment draw for the Tampa Bay Lightning owner's $1 billion Channelside redevelopment project.

"He was not enthused," Crist said.

Focus has shifted to Fowler Avenue, just north of Tampa. However, that part of the county is poised for a massive transformation as well.

Hillsborough County has designated the area near the University of South Florida as an "innovation district." The goal is to link USF and other economic drivers in that region, like Busch Gardens and the medical centers, with spaces for businesses to start and grow.

Entertainment would be a piece of the redevelopment as county planners and businesses hope to attract millennial workers with a live-work-play environment. But whether jai alai fits into that vision remains to be seen.

Crist said the next step will be for the Tampa Innovation Alliance, a consortium of businesses and community groups spearheading the innovation district, and the county to study jai alai's feasibility in that region.

Former Commissioner Mark Sharpe, director of the alliance, said he was excited about the talk because "it's just one more example of the interest we're seeing in the innovation area," but he couldn't commit to its placement there.

"I said this to them when I first heard about this: 'Our commitment is to making sure this helps make the area conducive to families and enhancing the live-work-play atmosphere,' " he said.

Crist believes it has that potential if done smartly. He envisions more than just a fronton, but an entertainment complex with local craft beer and other Tampa Bay vendors, too.

"It would be fresh, new, fun, accessible and visible," Crist said. "With good packaging, branding and marketing, this could be the next hottest team in Tampa Bay."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.