Jai alai continues to draw dedicated fans, players

While gaming alternatives have proliferated in South Florida in recent years, a long-standing local tradition described as “ballet with bullets” works to stay relevant.

Crowds have dwindled over the years at Dania Jai-Alai, but there still remains a dedicated following among fans and players for a game filled with athleticism and beauty.

“I saw jai alai for the first time when I was 10 years old here at Dania. My parents took me here, and I loved it,” said Daniel Spinner, 23 and a Boca Raton resident. “It’s the fastest, most up-tempo ball sport in the world. I first started to play when I was 16 with a tennis ball on one of the walls in my neighborhood.”

Spinner is playing professionally at Dania Jai-Alai on his second six-week stint, battling for a shot at a permanent roster spot.

His journey is an increasingly unique one. At its peak, the sport was financially healthy, and owners were able to pay for amateur classes and programs that provided young talent an introduction to the sport. Today it’s harder to get involved as there are fewer places to learn the game. Cost also is a hindrance. The basket, or cesta, used to catch the ball can cost upward of $500 and is painstakingly crafted from reeds found in the Pyrenean Mountains in Spain. Pelotas can cost more than $100 and are hand-sewn.

And increased competition also has squeezed the local frontons.

“In the mid ’90s, the whole landscape of the sport changed as far as the gambling aspect. A lot of competition came in, which kind of obligated the [frontons] to be open more often,” said Benny Bueno, Dania Jai-Alai’s operations manager who also was one of the sport’s best local players for more than 20 years. “In other words, go to a year-round schedule in fear of closing down for three months and losing all your clientele to other attractions.”