CHATTAHOOCHEE, FLA MAY 11, 2020
Jai alai is a sport that gained popularity in Florida in the 20th century as one of the state’s only legal gambling options, marketed as “the Fastest Game in the World.” It consists of a wicker sling-like device known as a cesta being used to bounce a hardball known as a pelota off of a wall and back towards the players. The slogan “Fastest Game in the World” was derived from the speed at which the pelotas are slung, which can be as quick as 200 mph. By the 1980s, jai alai was a household name. At one point there were nine different jai alai arenas, known as frontons, in the state of Florida. The Big Bend Jai Alai Fronton in Chattahoochee was open from 1978 to 1990, sitting abandoned for the past 30 years. Jai alai is pronounced “high-lie.”
According to an Orlando Sentinel article from 1990, there were plans to convert the Big Bend Jai Alai Fronton into a greyhound track after its final season (Orlando Sentinel). Greyhound tracks gained popularity as a legal gambling option in the 90s, although in November of 2018 an amendment was passed by 69% of voters to close down every greyhound track in the state of Florida by the end of 2020 (First Coast News). Jai alai also suffered from a player strike in 1988, which was joined by players at Big Bend. Players were frequently afflicted by deep cuts and concussions, as well as issues with front office management. This strike resulted in the sport falling out of popularity in the United States.
The Big Bend Fronton has an obscure history, except for the fate of co-owner Stephen Calder. Calder died of a heart attack just before the fronton opened, and his $22 million estate was disputed in court cases for longer than the arena remained operational. Referring to disputes over the estate, one attorney was quoted saying “There are all sorts of wild allegations on the record: suitcases of gems, hidden gold, chicanery, injustice. Nothing was ever proven.”
The sister fronton and nearly identical twin to the Big Bend Jai Alai, the Orlando-Seminole Fronton, closed in 2009 after nearly 48 years in operation and was redeveloped in 2019 as an “Orlando Live Events” facility. Approximately six jai alai frontons remain operational in Florida.
Shot on Canon EOS M100 15-50mm