With the 2021 gaming compact tied up in court, Floridians can only bet on horse racing and jai-alai.
The latter seemed to be dying as fewer and fewer people wanted to watch or bet on the game. But a Miami-area casino launched a professional jai-alai league, which sparked a jai-alai renaissance a few months after the state’s final fronton (or court) closed.
Magic City Casino brought the sport back. In February, the casino announced it was launching a professional jai-alai league called Battle Court.
During its recently-concluded first season, the game regained popularity in the Sunshine State and added fans worldwide.
What is jai-alai?
It’s OK. You’re not alone in asking the question.
It’s similar to racquetball. But instead of a racquet, you use a large, curved basket that is tied to your right hand to catch and throw the ball against the wall.
One team throws the ball against the wall and the other team must catch it before it bounces twice. It is one of the fastest ball sports in the world. The ball typically travels around 150 miles per hour.
The first team to score six points wins the set. The first team to win two sets wins the match.
The sport came to the U.S. in 1924 from the Basque region of Spain. Florida lawmakers legalized jai-alai betting in 1936, which sparked immense popularity for the game in the state.
However, over several decades, its popularity declined. The arrival of traditional professional sports, followed by Las Vegas-style casino gaming, only accelerated that.
Cesta Cyclones take league’s first title
The inaugural season ended in mid-April with the Cesta Cyclones winning the league’s first championship.
The league was comprised of four teams with each team having to roster four players. The Cyclones were owned by longtime producer of the ‘Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz’ Chris Cote. The squad earned $65,000 for the title.
“The inaugural Battle Court season was a complete success,” said Magic City Jai-Alai Chief Operating Officer Scott Savin. “A big congratulations to the winning squad, Cesta Cyclones, and to their team owner, Chris Cote, whose leadership was instrumental in setting the right tone for this group.”
Battle Court’s first season was nine weeks long and featured slight differences from the traditional game. Instead of playing in teams of two, Battle Court was played in a one-on-one format.
Here was the winning team’s roster:
- Michael Carballo
- Jean Gregory Melendo Ikeda
- Tanard Davis
- Saloney Joseph
- Victor Manuel Ramirez
- Emmanuel Laduche
Battle Court social media propelled jai-alai fan base
When Magic City decided to run with the league, the only goal was to grow the game.
“We were hoping for a positive reaction from our fans,” said Savin. “And when I say our fans, I’m talking about the current fans we had before launched and the fans we were hoping we could acquire during the Battle Court season.”
Savin credited a savvy move from the league and casino’s communications director as one of the main reasons they achieved the goal.
“[He] decided to live-stream some of the matches on TikTok. And that seems to have really hit a vein,” said Savin. “In just nine weeks, we went from essentially no TikTok followers to, I believe today we are going to hit 100,000.”
Additionally, several of the league’s TikTok videos went viral. This only furthered their reach and increased viewership.
“One has about 10.4 million views,” said Savin of the league’s videos. “And then another half-dozen have between half a million and a million views on all things relating to jai-alai.”
There were about 50,000 unique viewers on the platform watching the league’s championship match. Furthermore, those TikTok viewers previously weren’t jai-alai fans. Based on the comments on the videos, these viewers are just figuring out what the sport is.
“On the stream, they ask us, ‘how do you say the name of this game?’ Or ,‘what am I watching? What are the rules?’” said Savin. “So, we’ve tapped in and really found an audience that didn’t know the sport existed but is captivated by it.”
Aside from their TikTok channel, Magic City made strategic partnerships with distribution platforms before the season started. Matches were broadcast to 115 million homes thanks to distribution deals with FTF Sports and La Liga Sport TV in Spain.
Battle Court jumpstarted jai-alai betting
Battle Court partnered with Rush Street Gaming, the parent company of the BetRivers brand, before the season started. The partnership allowed BetRivers customers to wager on matches in all the jurisdictions the company operates.
BetRivers sports betting is currently legal in Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Notice I didn’t mention Florida?
Despite the league’s matches taking place in Miami, Floridians couldn’t bet on the league. Gamblers in the Sunshine State could only wager on the pari-mutuel version of the game. Not Battle Court.
Since the league slightly altered the way the game is played, it doesn’t adhere to the state’s current legal standards for betting. However, Savin said that Battle Court did rejuvenate the betting on the pari-mutuel format. Betting on non-Battle Court jai-alai was up 30% at Magic City Casino from pre-league days.
When Florida sports betting is legalized, that would change, and likely change quickly.
“Because it’s already approved as a pari-mutuel sport in Florida, that should be essentially immediate,” said Savin. “Now I don’t know when sports wagering is going to come here, but that will be a big shot in the arm for jai-alai when it happens.”
In the meantime, the league will continue to expand its fan and betting base in other markets.
“We got into Canada through Rush Street and we’re hopeful we’ll be in Mexico before the end of the year,” said Savin. “Which we think will be a really big market for jai-alai because they know and play the sport there.”
He added that international wagering isn’t run through BetRivers, or even available yet. But Ontario regulators approved it at the beginning of April and Magic City is working to obtain partners who can facilitate it.
The future looks bright for Battle Court
Initially, Magic City wasn’t sure whether to have multiple seasons in a calendar year. That changed after they saw how popular the sport was with the fan base they curated.
Instead of waiting until 2023, Battle Court will add a fall season to the calendar. For now, the league will stay with four teams rostering six players apiece. But they hope to expand both the number of teams and roster size as soon as possible.
“We’re hoping to go to five teams in 2023,” said Savin. “That’ll expand the player roster by an additional six players. And actually, we also maintain a taxi squad in case of injuries. So, we’ll have to be adding probably seven or eight players to the roster next year in order to go to five teams.”