Many have called Jai Alai “the most dangerous game in the world.” With a label like that, you’d think that it would be more popular, right? One would think this would be especially true in a country like the United States, where we enjoy our fair share of extreme and potentially dangerous sports. Strangely, that’s not the case.
Originating in Spain’s Basque country, Jai Alai came to the United States more than 100 years ago. The sport is quite similar to racquetball, but the players don’t actually use racquets. Instead, they strap narrow, curved baskets called cestas to their hands and use them to catch and throw a ball, called a pelota. The cestas provide additional leverage, which allows players to throw the pelota at speeds upwards of 150 miles. Opponents must catch these fast-moving missiles and throw it back in one smooth motion or the thrower receives a point. The extreme speeds of the pelotas are what earns the sport it’s “most dangerous” title.
Jai Alai made its way to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and Florid became home to the first professional venue in the 1920s. It was an extremely fast growing spectator sport up through the 60s, mainly due to the fast pace of the game and the very real danger, as players weren’t required to wear helmets during the first half of the century. Jai Alai even became a popular gambling sport in Las Vegas during the 70s. The method of scoring and rotating players makes the game very conducive to betting–similar to the way spectators can bet on horse racing.
The popularity of the sport died off in the late 1980s, but there are still a few Jai Alai venues open today, all of which are still in Florida and still promote gambling on the sport.
Part of the reason the popularity of Jai Alai died off is that it isn’t very exciting for television coverage. The result is that it’s primarily a niche sport with very little following beyond gamblers.
It’s not completely dead, though. Professional Jai Alai players still come to Florida from all over the world to compete, and these players can easily earn six-figure salaries. Furthermore, a new Jai Alai venue has opened in St. Petersburg that doesn’t focus on gambling at all and offers the chance for amateur players to learn the sport. With any luck, venues like this might just breathe the kind of life back into the sport to make it mainstream again.