In an effort to draw a younger audience, the Little Havana casino has launched special Friday- and Saturday-night editions of the once-popular sport. The evening series is called the Jai. If that sounds like the name of a swanky Miami Beach club, well, it’s supposed to.
The Jai includes live DJ sets before and after games and special stage lighting where only the glass court — also new this season — is lit for a more intimate viewing experience. And for that nightclub atmosphere, colorful lights enhance the VIP section. Yes, there's a VIP section.
VIP guests at the Jai receive preferred seating, a dedicated server, and — because gambling is kind of the point of hosting jai alai at a casino — tableside betting. Don’t know enough about jai alai to put money on it? The Jai is newbie-friendly, featuring an announcer who explains the rules of the game, which includes players whipping the ball (pelota) against the wall at speeds of up to 150 mph using a curved wicker basket (cesta).
There's a chance that even jai alai neophytes might recognize some of the players. Many are former University of Miami athletes whose transition into jai alai was the subject of local filmmaker Billy Corben's 2019 documentary, Magic City Hustle.
Could Corben's film and the Jai point to a revival of the sport? It might be a tough sell. Jai alai used to pack huge crowds in the '80s. But over the past few decades, the sport's popularity waned throughout most of the nation, making Florida one of the few states where it remains. Still, the typical jai alai game crowd at Magic City Casino consists of males 50 and older, says Lindsay Savin, the casino's digital marketing and production manager. There’s a reason the Jai — which kicked off July 19 and runs through November 23 — is pulling out all the stops to attract millennials: The survival of the sport will depend on the next generation's involvement.
To attract the younger crowd, the Jai lets attendees get in on gaming themselves. “The indoor lawn games are fun and laid-back, and get you in the groove,” Savin says. “They include beer pong, cornhole, ring toss, life-size Jenga, and life-size Connect Four. We are especially excited about Color War on Saturdays, which is an awesome interactive drinking game that unlocks $1 beer and wine all night.”
As for jai alai purists, there's no need to fret. Standard jai alai without the bells and whistles is still available Wednesday through Sunday at Magic City Casino. But for the uninitiated, cheap beer and drinking games might hold the key to a millennial jai alai revival.
The Jai. 6 to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through November 23 at Magic City Casino, 450 NW 37th Ave., Miami; 305-649-3000; magiccitycasino.com.