MIAMI — They picked sides at Magic City Casino. Not to divide, but to conquer.
On a jai alai fronton that gleamed with a distinctly modern, if not hip vibe, the backdrop and proceedings for the second Battle Court Draft were in contrast to the state of the game that had brought them here.
Jai alai in the United States has not gleamed or felt hip for decades, having receded first to South Florida and now this lone outpost near the airport, in a Little Havana neighborhood dark enough for the casino’s massive neon signage to glow afar.
With a chief operating officer who had a big, but admittedly foolish idea, a group of foreign players with no other American options, new American ones from other sports looking for next options, and a cesta full of hope, this group of true believers, settling into at ballroom tables or hovering around the draft board looked and sounded invigorated.
When other frontons were in the process of closing, Magic City built a new one in 2018. BetRivers signed on as the lone sports betting operator, taking jai alai to markets in the states it serves. PrizePicks came on as a daily fantasy partner. A new data and streaming deal was announced on Sept. 20.
And after Battle Court, the aggregated new version of singles and doubles jai alai proved successful enough in 2022 for another go, ESPN this summer signed a deal to broadcast live matches on ESPN3 and on its app.
So on this Friday night in Miami, Aug. 5, players waiting to see if they’d be selected for four six-man teams — and for the buffet to open — didn’t sound like defenders of a final bunker. They meant to use Magic City Casino and Battle Court as the Miami beach head to push back into relevance. But they understood this had to work.
“Because of Magic City, in the U.S., jai alai is alive,” said Aratz Mendizabal, whose roots are in the sport’s homeland of Spain. “No more Magic City, no more jai alai.”
Scott Savin is clearly in charge. Or if he isn’t, he looks like he should be. Because he has his hands on almost every aspect of the show before during and after the Jai Alai Network was to go live for the draft. He introduced picks. He announced when dinner was served — and instructed the children to go up first — and he handed out schedules. He shook many hands.
Savin looked the part in Miami business-casual white linen suit jacket. And the fact that he’s standing at the podium in the final minutes before the draft, detailing the run of show as players, owners, family, and friends settled into their dinner seats and hoisted a first glass of Sangria.
Savin doesn’t come across as overbearing. Just very-much-caring. And he does, because this was his idea.
One of the Magic City players refers to him as Cowboys owner Jerry Jones “in a good way.” Savin laughed at the comparison.
“When you’re trying … when you’re doing this, you can’t be offended by anything,” he said. “There’s a lot of enjoyment. A lot of passion.”
There must have been for Savin to convince the owners of Magic City Casino — the Havenick family as West Flagler Associates — to make the pivot they made in 2018.
At that time in Florida, facilities, in order to offer slot machines, were required to host pari-mutuel horse or dog racing or jai alai, “and the sentiment about dog racing was very negative,” Savin said.
“I was like, you know what? Let’s, let’s stop dog racing and switch to jai alai,” he continued. “There’s no cruelty to animals. It’s humans. We can pay them. It can make money. It’s kind of like a win-win. It used to be such a huge sport in Florida. And I’m like, ‘Let’s take a shot at it.’”
The Havenicks committed $600,000 into turning an indoor performance venue into a fronton when they were rotting everywhere else in the United States. West Flagler’s most recent Florida gambling ripple was as one of two plaintiffs that sued successfully to shut down the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s sports betting compact.
Florida eventually stopped requiring that pari-mutuels maintain live cards as a requirement for slots. And greyhound racing was banned in 2020 — making Magic City’s move seem prescient — but still risky in regards to the embrace of jai alai.
“We didn’t really have a problem anymore,” Savin said, regarding the requirement to offer slots. “We could’ve just said, ‘OK, that’s it, we’re done. We won’t play jai alai anymore.
“But too much commitment on the part of the players, and maybe a little insanity on my part. A lot of people bought into this. I mean the players, and there’s a lot of behind the scenes, people producing stuff, our announcers, our social media people, and everybody sort of that I spoke to has a story about jai alai … ‘I went with my dad one night or with my granddad. I saw it on Miami.’ There’s a little bit of connection here.”
After concocting Battle Court, Savin had what he calls one of his “better ideas,” convincing at least four ownership groups to pay $100,000 each season to be team owners. There would be perks of ownership without all the payroll and hassle. Magic City provides a base player salary — it won’t reveal it — insurance, and a $500,000 bonus pool. There could be upwards of $50,000 in prize money and some revenue-sharing for owners. But there would be no breaking even, and ownership would end with the season. It seemed more like sponsoring a very boutique softball team.
Incredibly, all four ownership groups from Battle Court I returned for the second season.
Among them is a retired couple that used to fly cross-country to watch matches in South Florida. Three other groups came on with media-barter deals: Chris Cote producer of The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz, and local radio personalities K Marie “La Gringa Más Latina,” from 94.9, and Jammin’ Johnny from El Zol 106.7.
While some owners wear team shirts or hats, Cote procured a billboard with the defending season champion grinning down in caricature from high above the court. He has a nice spot next to the jai alai beer ad. (That actually comes from Tampa).
Savin made the first two calls to pitch his idea to friends with a preface: “Look, this is a terrible financial investment.”
“It’s like, write a check for $100,000, don’t worry about salaries, and don’t worry about insurance. Don’t worry about travel, and don’t worry about advertising. And just have the fun of saying, ‘I’m a professional sports owner’,” Savin said, recalling the pitch. “Now, if we can grow that the number of teams and eventually lower the cost of owning a franchise, then we’ve created sort of a niche, unique thing in sports because no one else is going to offer them that. No one else really has thought of seasonal team ownership and no one else can make it affordable.
“And I know $100,000 … ‘affordable’ … but it is to a lot of people that have the discretionary income. So maybe instead of buying the boat or that Lamborghini or whatever it is, they’d rather own this because we try and make it as hands-on as we can.”
The first call, to Michael and Nina Blechman, was an easy sell. The interest was mutual. Both the Blechmans and Savin remember themselves as making the initial overture. The Blechmans made the point early, though, that Savin needed to find owners who would tell as many people as possible how much fun they were having.
“That was the idea behind Le Batard, Chris Cote,” Savin admitted. “And then the two from 94.9. K Marie, Norwegian-born, Spanish-speaking afternoon drive post of a Spanish radio show. Played rugby in college, kind of checks the boxes. Female owner. Amazing. Her husband is a fairly well-known music producer. So you get a little bit of the celebrity that he brings, and now we’re hoping we expand more teams next year and then hopefully more cities.”
Savin said he’s fielded calls from casino owners — including one in Las Vegas — about the prospect of gaining a Battle Court franchise. The relatively inexpensive outlay of fronton construction helped those conversations, he said. Savin thinks any replication of Battle Court would have to run through Magic City because it controls the small American player pool.
Magic City’s jai alai product, Savin said, was initially “terrible.”
“The Bad News Bears of Jai Alai,” he said. And not in a good way.
Now, because there are no other domestic opportunities for players, the place houses a roster of national champions and a collective of international talents from Spain, France, Mexico, the Philippines, and Phillip, W.Va. Most play under a nom de guerre, with Aratz being one of the few exceptions.
“We’re the best that there is out there,” Savin declared. “If we were to play against another fronton, internationally, Mexico, Spain, whatever, we’re going to beat them.”
And then Savin indulged in a presumably accidental Jones-ism.
“It’s sort of like the tallest midget,” he said.
“But we’re the best at jai alai. And now the question is, can we take jai alai mainstream?”
Enter “The Ocho”. Make that tres. As in ESPN 3.
The sports entertainment monolith’s voracious appetite for live content has led it to buy bowl games and explore exotic programming to sate viewers’ verifiable desire for it. This summer, ESPN and Magic City announced the second Battle Court season, which begins on Sept. 23, would be offered via streaming and on the ESPN app, firing the proverbial pelota at 83 million Americans.
Social media might have played a major role in this new opportunity, Savin believes. And listening to his daughter.
When Lindsay Savin, who is in charge of all of Magic City’s social media, once told her father she was going to livestream a match on TikTok, her father dubbed it “a dumb idea.”
But the first iPhoned stream drew 50,000 unique users. The next, 75,000, then 100,000.
“And I’m like, ‘What’s the fascination to the people on TikTok who have never seen this game before?’,” he pondered. “They have no idea what they’re watching. They’re seeing two guys or four guys running around a court, kind of frenetically with this ball that’s flying around at 150 miles an hour.
“And they’re like, ‘That’s cool’. Afterward, people say it reminds them of Tron.”
Friends in Jai Alai Places
Michael and Nina Blechman are what you’d call good friends. Very, very good friends.
So good that they never balked about forking over six figures to “own” a jai alai team for a few months.
It wasn’t the prospect of buying the sweet purple Chula Chargers jersey Michael wore to the draft. Or the private party deck next to the court during games. Or sitting at one of the head tables with his players at the draft. Because the Blechmans actually let their returning players select their new teammates for Battle Court II.
It’s that the Blechmans were made for this. They had long been fans of the sport before their son, Andrew, landed a gig as a jai alai announcer out of college, routinely flying from their home in Chicago to South Florida to watch matches at Dania in the 1980s and 1990s.
And they can afford this entertainment, retiring after selling their specialty printing company to a private equity firm in 2011.
Oh, and Nina is an absolute jai alai wonk. Walks through their Boca Raton neighborhood, during their golf outings, never a moment of peace if there’s a match being played live.
“She has her phone on listening to every point of every belota game, every head-to-head game and Battle Court game,” Michael Blechman said. “She doesn’t miss a single point. You could ask her any statistic on any player and she will know it. She’s a complete junkie. We also are very disciplined about our walking, which we do. And it’s always jai alai, the first thing that’s on.”
“I put on my earphones and walk,” said the team’s unofficial general manager, not a bit remorseful.
The Blechmans have pledged to fly in the families of all of their players if they have a chance to win the championship.
“We would never really have known about [jai alai] if it wasn’t for Andrew,” Michael Blechman said. “Maybe we would’ve watched the ESPN2 show the other night … and said, ‘that’s really cool’. But it is great. And we have brought friends here to watch with us. Everybody loves it. We just have to get more eyeballs on this thing.”
The Melting Pot
Aratz Mendizabal is just 20 but represents both the old guard and new of jai alai. A second-generation player who was born in Connecticut — where his father was playing professionally — he traces his roots to the Spanish Basque region where the sport is religion. Mendizabal returned to Spain to study the game, then migrated to South Florida to compete on the Dania and Miami Jai Alai frontons and is now one of the more experienced players at Magic City despite his youth.
“There are a lot of Basque players. My friends that I met in the Basque country are here,” Mendizabal, part of the 2022 US doubles champion team said. “Now it’s all good people too, but it’s a different culture. There are many very good players.”
Matthew Langhans is one of them, a star at Magic City and half of the 2021 national champion doubles team with his brother, Ben. Matthew Langhans’s father played jai alai professionally for 13 years, but his aspiration was baseball until he tore the labrum in his pitching shoulder in 2017.
“One day I started practicing [jai alai] with my dad. I asked him to teach me how to play, and Magic City started that same year,” he remembers. “We were watching, and my dad had always kind of kept up with what was going on with jai alai, and he was like, ‘I think you competed against these guys. Would you like to try to get a contract?’”
Langhan excelled enough at a tryout to earn a contract, and his younger brother, losing interest in baseball, soon followed.
Tanard Davis is a series of subsets all to himself. The only Magic City player to win a Super Bowl, a BCS National Championship, and work as a cop in Georgia, the 39-year didn’t take up the game until the fronton was built in 2018.
His subsequent Magic City doubles championship might not exactly compare to the ring he earned as a member of the Indianapolis Colts practice squad in 2007 or the title with the University of Miami in 2005, but he seems a little nervous on the fringes of the court before the draft.
Davis, who plays under the pseudonym of “Jeden,” was a member of the title-winning Cyclones squad in Battle Court I but wasn’t one of the three players protected by Cote before the draft.
That he’s proved. Davis’ jai alai journey began with an email from the Miami athletic department after Savin solicited the university looking for local athletes to fill the paddock.
“The details were just, you make a good wage, 401k, healthcare, and you could become a professional athlete again,” Davis explained. “Then somebody who was in management emailed me personally, asked me, ‘Hey, just come and try out.’ So he kind of sold me.”
Davis, a former Big East defensive back, passed the agility test held in November. Training began in January, and the season began seven months later.
Was that enough time?
“No,” he laughed. “It doesn’t seem like enough to learn how to do anything.”
Davis’s speed and agility translated. But chasing footballs doesn’t prepare even honed athletes for wrangling a ball that can kill.
“There’s some guys out here, you look at ’em, you don’t think they’re fast. They’re not technically fast, but their hand-eye is impeccable,” Davis explained. “And you’ve got guys like me who are shifty, pretty fast, pretty strong, but I’m having issues tracking the ball, putting them in my cesta.”
He’s proud of what he’s accomplished. And how a locker room that a few years ago was full of doubters almost resentful of the presence of players like him, now offers respect to him and the likes of the Langhans.
“I’m very prideful for being one of the originals, one of the guys that the guys from Spain and Dania were like, ‘Yo, this is a joke. Why would you put that kind of product out there to embarrass our sport?’ I’m proud of that,” said Davis, who was re-drafted by the Cyclones. “Now those same guys are coming and saying, ‘You guys are going against the grain when it comes to learning the sport of jai alai.’ The locker room is a mixture of guys. The nucleus there is really organic. Scott did a really good job with placing the right guys, understanding that and making them understand you’re going to be a part of the growth, or you’re going watch us grow.”