The game of jai alai originated in northern Spain four centuries ago with competitors throwing a ball against a church wall. Eventually the unusual game spread to North America. Today jai alai is the fastest sport in the world involving a ball and is played with unprecedented skill. But while it was a wildly popular spectator sport in several states for much of the 20th century, today find only a handful of active jai alai arenas, or frontons. Most, if not all, are in Florida.
Among those, the top players compete year-round in the fronton at Casino Miami. The next time you visit or vacation in South Florida, make sure to set aside some time to check out the nonstop action. Though if you’re 21 you’re encouraged to wager on the contests, you’re also perfectly welcome to simply come and watch for free if you like.
Jai alai came from Basque villages in the Pyranees at the neck of the Iberian peninsula. It began there in church courtyards as an athletic pastime to mark Sundays and religious holidays—translated from Basque, “jai alai” means “merry festival.” The sport debuted in the United States in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair. The first Miami fronton opened in 1924 but had to be rebuilt after the great hurricane of 1926.
Jai alai frontons resemble handball and racquetball courts, except with three sides instead of four. It amounts to a stage in front of stadium seating, much like in a theater. The object of jai alai is similar to handball and racquetball, and is played in singles and doubles, but the player equipment is more suggestive of lacrosse. Competitors hurl the ball, called a pelota, against the front wall at high speed using a curved, cupped stick strapped to their wrist called a cesta. The opponent must catch the carom, either directly or off the first bounce, and whirl it back at the wall. Each point continues until one side fails to make the play. According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the highest speed for a pelota was timed in 1979 at 188 mph.
The Miami jai alai Fronton schedules 13 games per night, which normally last on average for 10 to 20 minutes. Games are offered year-round for your pleasure. Wagering on the game became legalized in 1934. Jai alai in Miami is a fun, fast and exciting alternative to the traditional casino experience, although there’s also slots and poker at Casino Miami. Attending this ancestral game of the Basque region will generate memories and stories to complement everything else enjoyable on your Miami vacation.