Earlier this month during the heart of football season, William Hill US CEO Joe Asher made a long trek to South Florida to take part in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new company race book.
The event took place inside Casino Miami, a 40,000 square foot casino in the Allapattah neighborhood of the city, in a venue formerly known as Miami Jai Alai Fronton. There, Asher posed for pictures next to Aritz Erkiaga, dubbed “King Of Miami,” by Jai Alai News in 2016 for capturing the fronton’s Triple Crown — given to a player that completes the rare feat of finishing a season with the most wins, as well as titles in singles and doubles.
As Asher cut into a ribbon that displayed the William Hill logo, Erkiaga held a cesta, a curved basket that Jai Alai players use to hurl a goatskin ball upwards of 160 mph, within a racquetball and tennis-esque volleying format in singles and doubles games. With its sights set on one day potentially offering legalized sports wagers in Florida, William Hill is betting on Jai Alai.
“Hopefully one day this is a William Hill Race and Sportsbook, until sports betting legislation passes in Florida, it’s a racebook,” Asher said. While passage of such will be a steep uphill battle, mainly matters concerning the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s tribal-state compact, at least there’s movement with committee hearings set for 2020 to discuss three bills pre-filed in November by Republican senator Jeff Brandes..
Florida sports betting precursor
William Hill is partnering with Casino Miami and owner Phil Ruffin to offer pari-mutuel simulcast wagering on Jai Alai, along with thoroughbred, harness and greyhound racing from numerous tracks around the country. The facility will also offer live betting on Jai Alai at its 6,000 seat fronton, an open-walled playing area where the matches are contested.
While other gambling facilities have permitted wagering upon Jai Alai matches previously, William Hill becomes the first major sportsbook nationwide to accept wagers on Jai Alai, an activity described by the Basque Government in Spain as the fastest sport in the world.
— William Hill US (@WilliamHillUS) December 5, 2019
Much like horse racing, bettors have the opportunity to place wagers in Jai Alai in a pari-mutuel format. In pari-mutuel wagering, all bets on a particular outcome such as a horse to win are placed together in a pool. Based on the amount of money wagered on an entrant, an operator will set the odds on every competitor. The operator determines a takeout for every wager that goes to the house with the remainder divided among the winning tickets.
While some matches, predominantly in Spain, are won by the first team to score 21 points, Casino Miami holds eight games a night under a round-robin format. There are eight entries in a given singles or doubles match, but only two teams are on the court for a single point. Under the round-robin system, the team that wins a point stays on the court while the losing team moves behind the six other teams waiting to rejoin the action. As a result, round-robin caters more to exotic wagers such as quinellas and trifectas (the top two and three finishers respectively) rather than traditional win-place-show bets.
“You don’t see a lot of large individual bets, but you see a lot of combos,” said Dan Licciardi, general manager at Casino Miami.
Jai Alai betting landscape
William Hill enters the Jai Alai space at a crossroads for the sport. On one hand, the Jai Alai handle across Florida remains sparse. Over a 12-month period through June 2019, frontons statewide reported a collective handle of $8.45 million, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. The figures represent a sharp decline from 2011-2012 when the state’s eight-largest frontons handled about $30 million in Jai Alai wagers.
On the other, interest in Jai Alai in South Florida could be trending upward. In September, a Florida court ruled that Calder Casino in Miami Gardens could discontinue horse racing in lieu of Jai Alai. Now, with the backing of William Hill, Jai Alai at Casino Miami may benefit from an increased marketing and promotions budget.
“I think it’s a great deal and I think it will help us grow the sport as it was in the 80s,” Erkiaga said.
Jai Alai popularity in South Florida reached an apex in the early-1980s when as many as 15,000 fans a night packed into the top frontons in the Miami area. Licciardi, one of the world’s most foremost Jai Alai experts, vividly recalls a payout on a Pick 6 part-wheel during the era that cashed a pre-tax amount around $525,000. More recently, most of the large payouts at The Casino at Dania Beach, a rival fronton, range anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000, he said.
Licciardi attributes the decline in the Jai Alai state handle partly to the rise of the Florida Lottery, which began operations in 1988.
“It was a hell of a lot easier to walk in and pick numbers in a lottery than sit here and figure out which guys will win,” Licciardi said.
At Casino Miami, the takeout for exotic Jai Alai wagers is around 22 percent to 25 percent, Licciardi said. The rate is slightly lower in comparison with exotic payouts at Gulfstream Park, whose winter thoroughbred meet ranks among the most prestigious in the world. The takeout on trifecta and superfecta wagers at Gulfstream in nearby Hallandale Beach, has reached as high as 26 percent in recent years.
— Dokter Bola (@dokterbola_ID) October 1, 2019
Anti-match fixing protocols
For decades, Jai Alai has been forced to fight the stigma of match fixing. During the mid-1980s, the Phillippines issued a nationwide ban on the sport amid widespread match rigging concerns. One unscrupulous scheme, Licciardi explained, involved the practice of past-posting where operators would offer lines on matches that had already taken place. Jai Alai has since been reinstated in the South Asian nation.
Today, there is little incentive for Jai Alai players to cheat, he says, due to the low amounts in the pools. The players, he adds, pride themselves on their strong work ethic and delivering a competitive product. Hardly any, at least at Casino Miami, would risk their careers by fixing a match.
There are also severe penalties for players who are found guilty of match rigging. Per Florida regulations on Trade, Commerce, Investments and Solicitations, it is a crime under state law to conspire in prearranging the results of a Jai Alai match. The violations are punishable by a third-degree felony.
550.235 Conniving to prearrange result of race or jai alai game; using medication or drugs on horse or dog; penalty.—(1) Any person who influences, or has any understanding or connivance with, any owner, jockey, groom, or other person associated with or interested in any stable, kennel, horserace, dograce, or jai alai game, in which any horse, dog, or jai alai player participates, to prearrange or predetermine the results of any such race or game, is guilty of a felony of the third degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084. — Chapter 550 Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
One bill from Brandes, noted above, would take effect on Oct. 1, 2020.
“If we ever get lucky enough to have sports wagering started, you’re pretty much flipping a switch,” Licciardi said. “It opens doors for us.”