The sport of Jai-Alai ("Hi-Li") was invented in the Basque region of Spain. The name means "merry festival." Jai-Alai was brought to America in 1904 and was one of the fastest growing sports in the 1970s and 80s until it collapsed amid financial mismanagement and rumors of mob-related match-fixing. (Oh, and murder.) Fewer than ten frontons are still operational. Many of the most beautiful have been demolished or have fallen into disrepair.
In its heyday, the Biscayne Fronton (now “Casino Miami Jai-Alai”) hosted thousands of tuxedo-clad Miamians every weekend. At the tail end of its prosperity, it hosted the Grateful Dead. Now, the building is attached to a small casino that subsidizes mid-afternoon games attended by ten-to-twenty regulars, the survival of the game solely dependent on a 2003 Florida law that allows paramutual and table gambling wherever jai-alai is played.
Going to the fronton is like walking into a place vacated by time. The beer is cheap. The players, in faded traditional garb, enter in a single-file line and salute the nearly empty seats before every match. The referees, none of whom is under seventy, wear all-white. The first serve comes out of the cesta, and six or seven veijos begin yelling taunts. Most of the play is lazy and uninspired, but every now and then, out of pure competitive spirit, a real point is produced: the players launch themselves off of the back wall and the pelota flies at over a hundred miles an hour. Then the point is over and the torpid calm returns.
What does this have to do with publishing? Well, everything.