Whatever happened to jai alai in Vegas?

The original MGM Grand (now Bally’s) was, during the 1970s, a magical, lustrous spot on the Strip. Gilded with the glamour of Hollywood (portraits of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie stars adorned the common areas), the MGM boasted what was then the city’s fanciest casino shopping arcade dotted with dozens of high-end, one-off shops, a Swensen’s Ice Cream Parlour and a luxurious movie theater screening MGM classics where patrons reclined on velvet sofas, sipping Singapore Slings delivered by a waitress. It also sported—in the odd-shaped building still standing at Flamingo Road and Audrie Street—a jai alai fronton. Grandpa took me along on a couple Saturday afternoons, and while he placed pari-mutuel bets, I sat mesmerized by the fast and furious foreign sport (shorthand: racquetball at 180 mph) whose Latin players and unusual equipment transported me to another place (the Basque region of Spain, to be exact).

Both of Kirk Kerkorian’s MGM Grand locations held wagered jai alai matches; Reno’s tepid run lasted from 1978-1980, while in Las Vegas, the matches began in 1974 and ended abruptly in November 1980 with the tragic MGM fire. Given an interest that never reached expectations, the fronton was repurposed as a convention facility when the hotel reopened the following July.

Jai alai recently reappeared in the local news. Last fall, Boyd Gaming—the sport’s only remaining local connection—tried and failed to sell its Florida operation. Meanwhile, the Nevada Gaming Control Board suggested that rules governing jai alai betting be repealed as unnecessary. If the repeal is successful, jai alai betting will no longer be legal here—and I’d wager that even grandpa wouldn’t miss it.

Settle this: Do locals go to the Strip or don’t they?

My answer above indicates that this local indeed goes to the Strip, and has done so his entire life. Las Vegas was a relatively small city through the 1980s, and locals were notably not as snobbish about staying away as they are today. In fact, we often took advantage of the Strip, enjoying a nice dinner and a show (or, in my case, an ice cream and a movie at MGM).

Of course, this was both easier and more desirable back then, when the city was smaller, Strip prices were more affordable and there were sparingly few nice off-Strip restaurants. For better or worse, none of this is true today.