The Blechman family is synonymous with Florida jai-alai.
Michael Blechman owns the Chula Chargers. The Chargers were one of the four teams that competed in the inaugural season of Battle Court, a professional jai-alai league at Magic City Casino in Miami.
His son, Andrew, is the voice of Battle Court. The University of Miami graduate was hired by the local casino to announce jai-alai matches. Initially, he was simply commentating on the pari-mutuel matches that are typically on the matches.
However, when Magic City launched the first season of Battle Court last February, Andrew’s duties expanded. As his responsibilities grew, so did the number of Blechman’s involved in the league. But the Blechmans have been in the jai-alai world long before Battle Court was around.
Annual trips to Florida sparked the Blechmans’ love for jai-alai
During his days in the workforce, Michael was a successful businessman from Chicago. But when his mother retired to Florida, the family would vacation to the Sunshine State every year to visit.
During those annual trips, they would also spend time at local pari-mutuel facilities to watch and wager on jai-alai matches. It was those stops at local frontons, which is jai-alai speak for the court, where Andrew learned the game.
“We would make our airline reservation. And the next thing we did was make our jai-alai reservation,” said the elder Blechman. “Because it was such a big thing. We went down to Florida and we would always watch jai-alai. And so we always went and I took my kids there all the time because we loved it. We loved the sport.”
When the family would travel back to Chicago, that knowledge wasn’t worth much. But it eventually would become essential to his first job following his stint at the University of Miami.
“He was in the communications school and was a stellar student,” said Michael about his son. “Of course, he wanted to work for ESPN or do play-by-play for some sports team in Chicago or Miami. One day, I got a call from Andrew and he said, ‘Dad, there’s this job on Indeed. It’s kind of weird.’ And I said, ‘What is it?’ And he said, ‘It’s an announcer job. But it’s for jai-alai.’”
Andrew’s jai-alai knowledge was critical in getting hired
He submitted his resume and received an interview with Magic City. His first interview was a brief phone conversation with a hiring manager. She was interested in Andrew’s jai-alai knowledge.
“She wanted to know what he knew about jai-alai and he said, ‘I know everything about jai-alai,’” recalled Michael. “And she said, ’21-year-olds don’t know everything about jai-alai. How do you know about jai-alai?’ And he said, and I think this was the direct quote he gave to the woman he was talking to, ‘I’m a third-generation gambling degenerate with a father that took us to jai-alai since I was three years old.’”
The comment resonated with management. At least enough to give him a second, in-person interview.
But the second interview wasn’t much of an interview. It was a written test on the rules of jai-alai. Andrew aced it and got a contract on the spot.
He is currently in his third year working for Magic City. Along with his duties as an announcer, he works in the marketing department producing video clips for the league.
Michael found Battle Court ownership through his son’s new career
Michael and his wife always talked about retiring out west to either Arizona or Palm Springs. Somewhere where there was plenty of golf.
But with two daughters and a son in Chicago and another in South Florida, they decided to retire to South Florida instead. Now he spends nine months out of the year in the Miami area and three months in the Windy City.
Thanks to his son’s new job, and Michael’s new residence, the elder Blechman ran into Magic City COO Scott Savin. When Andrew started his career in the booth, there was no Battle Court. He was simply giving the play-by-play for all the pari-mutuel matches taking place at Magic City.
But in a conversation with Michael, Savin shared his Battle Court idea.
“When he told me they were starting Battle Court I said, ‘That sounds fantastic.’ I said, ‘Scott, I would love to help the program. And if I can, I’ll buy a team. I’d love to be a part of this because I love to be a part of my children’s lives any way I can,’” said Blechman.
Ultimately, Blechman fronted the money and bought one of the four teams available. Unfortunately, the Chargers finished at the bottom of the first season’s standings.
Here are the results of the first season:
1st – Cesta Cyclones: 45.5 points
2nd – Wall Warriors: 37.5 points
3rd – Rebote Renegades: 33.5 points
4th – Chula Chargers: 27.5 points
Blechman picked his team based on players he knew
As an owner, Blechman’s day-to-day responsibilities with the team were minimal. Savin constructed four teams of six players and then allowed the owners to pick which group of players they wanted as their franchise.
From a historical perspective, jai-alai popularity has been in decline since its peak in the 1980s. Sure enough, the height of jai-alai fandom was around the time when the Blechman family was making yearly trips to South Florida frontons. But over the last several years, the pace of the decline accelerated.
At the end of 2020, the Casino at Dania Beach shut down its jai-alai operation. It left Magic City as the state’s final fronton.
Blechman wasn’t familiar with any of the new players coming to Battle Court who were previously playing mostly at Dania Beach. He opted to choose the roster that had the best players from the host casino.
“We felt we had the two best Magic City players,” said Blechman. “What we didn’t realize was how good the Dania players were that came over and they really dominated the league. They did a great job.”
Blechman and his wife met with the team and decided which players would play in which slot. They also named a team captain. After that, they just watched the games and let the chips fall where they may.
“Each team consisted of six singles and four doubles,” said Blechman. “Douglas and Benny were our two that were on multiple doubles teams. Everybody else split up, paired up, and played. Other than that, our involvement was to show up and cheer wildly. We always met with our players after the match, but it wasn’t like we were giving them pep talks.”
Future success hinges on gambling popularity
As Savin told PlayFL in April, Battle Court secured a partnership with Rush Street Gaming. It allows gamblers in markets where the BetRivers app is available to wager on Battle Court matches.
Unfortunately, since Battle Court is slightly different than the traditional pari-mutuel style of jai-alai, it isn’t sanctioned by the Department of Pari-mutuel Wagering. As a result, Battle Court matches are off-limits to Florida bettors.
BetRivers is currently operating in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Savin believed that the combination of expanding the jai-alai betting market into other states and a sizeable viewership on Battle Court social media accounts serve as a catalyst to propel jai-alai popularity again.
“My sons are 25 and 27,” he said. “Those young men don’t understand pari-mutuel betting. But if you tell my kids that Douglas is -160 and Benny is +140, they’re all over that. That they understand. They got to pick the winning guy and they got to lay a price. So, the whole concept behind Battle Court is just fantastic. The only thing we have to do is get more eyeballs on it. Then it’ll grow.”
Additionally, Blechman thought that gambling was the driving force behind the popularity of most professional sports leagues.
“What makes football so popular?” asked Blechman. “People love the sport, but everyone is gambling on it. Whether you’ve got a parlay or you laid three points or you have a fantasy team or whatever. The gambling will ensure its success because that’s the world we live in.”
Blechman plans on keeping his team for the near future
Regardless of what the future holds for the world of jai-alai, and Battle Court specifically, Blechman plans on retaining ownership of the Chargers.
Magic City announced in May that teams were available to purchase for $100,000. But unless there is an owner that can add value to the league, the Chargers will stay in the Blechman family.
“I understand when you have a Dan Le Batard talking about jai-alai on his podcast or something, that is awesome for the league,” said Blechman. “Michael Blechman talking to the three guys he’s playing golf with that day isn’t going to do much for jai-alai. Although I brought my friends to a game and we sat in the owner’s box and they thought it was a great sport, Dan Le Batard on a podcast is far better for the league than I am.”