The Final Fronton Nears Its Final Days
By KENNETH BEST
Published: November 4, 2001
THE sanctuary of professional athletes, the locker room, is often a noisy place. Card games, practical jokes and loud banter
characteristically can be heard from behind its closed doors.
But since the announcement on Oct. 15 that Milford Jai-Alai would close after 25 years, the players who call the fronton's
locker room their home have been more subdued.
''It's very quiet in the locker room,'' said Josu Elesgarai, one of Milford's top jai alai players known on the court as Beitia,
who first came to the United States from Spain in 1992 to play at Bridgeport Jai-Alai.
Mr. Elesgarai is among 200 employees, including the 48 competitors, who will no longer have jobs after Dec. 12, when the last
of the state's three frontons will close.
Leonard Meyer, the Milford Jai-Alai president, said the closing was forced by a combination of events including declining
attendance, a continuing drop in revenue in the face of competition from Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun casinos, and the inability
to gain legislative support for the simulcasting of horse races.
''Milford has been a wonderful city to be in business in,'' Mr. Meyer said. ''The citizens and government have been more than
supportive. We felt a part of the community. We have no argument with the casinos. They're doing what they have to do. We've
had a working relationship with them.''
In fact, one of the last major events that will take place at Milford Jai-Alai is the Mohegan Sun International Jai-Alai Championships,
one of the sport's major tournaments, which ends today.
Milford had its best year of operation in 1988, when the fronton had revenues of about $100 million for six months of operation,
said Bob Heussler, a spokesman for the fronton. Milford alternated seasons with the Bridgeport fronton at the time.
The fronton's best individual day was Memorial Day of 1983, when rainy weather helped inspire 7,000 people
to bet $770,000.
The Foxwoods Casino opened in 1992 and within three years, Milford was the only jai alai fronton remaining.
After Bridgeport Jai-Alai closed in 1995 and was converted to Shoreline Star Greyhound Park, Milford began operating year-round.
At about the same time, the fronton in Hartford closed and is now the site of the Meadows Music Theater. However, revenues
continued to drop steadily in Milford. Last year the total amount of money bet at Milford was just more than $70 million and
this year it is at about $66 million.
Attendance was affected not only by the opening of the casinos, but by the acceptance of jai alai bets in the Connecticut
Off-Track Betting system in 1994, a move the frontons made in an effort to keep revenue flowing. However, while it made betting
more convenient, it kept fans out of the fronton, away from the restaurant and from experiencing the atmosphere of being inside
the building watching first hand the sport that is billed as the world's fastest ballgame.
''It was a double-edged sword,'' Mr. Huessler said. ''From a business perspective you had to be available in OTB, but at what
price? I think it might have been, in the end, too steep a price to pay.''
Milford Jai-Alai was not able to gain legislative support for the simulcasting of horse races, which is available at the dog
track in Bridgeport.
The cavernous Milford fronton has a capacity of 4,500 seats, and average attendance when it opened was more than 3,800. Today,
the average attendance is fewer than 500.
On the weekend just after the closing announcement was made, the smack of the pelota against the wall echoed periodically
throughout the building as players moved about the jai alai court. The other constant sound was the loud buzz from one of
the lighting ballasts. An occasional shout from a fan broke through from time to time.
Those who have been regulars at the fronton for many years said that while they do enjoy the wagering, it is the game itself
and its athletes that they will miss the most.
''It's very exciting, I'm going to miss it because it's a fun night out and great entertainment,'' said Ken Samu, a social
worker from Trumbull, lighting up a cigarette after checking his program. ''I don't play the horses or the dogs. I like jai
alai because I like watching the game.''
The Dec. 12 closing was selected because it was a natural break in the Milford schedule, what was the annual two-week shut
down for maintenance and repair work.
Lester Trotto, 53, began working part-time at the fronton cashing in winning tickets for customers. Today as the mutuals manager
he supervises nearly 50 people who take and cash bets. Mr. Trotto, who has spent 25 years in the jai alai industry and is
a native of the Milford-New Haven area, is uncertain what he will do when his job ends, along with its salary of more than
''I'd like to do something on the road, but not sales,'' he said. ''I really don't have any other experience than this. I've
met a lot of people working here, so I've got some people looking around for me.''
After learning of the closing, some of Mr. Trotto's staff moved quickly to attend a job fair at Mohegan Sun, thinking that
if enough of them were offered jobs, they could arrange car pools to work each day.
Mr. Meyers said he would work with his employees to assist them with unemployment and with state job programs. He also has
already been contacted by those interested in acquiring the 25-acre property, located just off of Interstate 95 on Old Gate
The only other jai alai frontons in the United States are in Newport, R.I., and at locations in Florida. The players, who
are primarily from the Basque region of Spain where the sport developed, hope to find jobs in those locations. However, not
all players have the same ability to find new jobs.
Some players, like Mr. Elesgarai, have been living and working in Connecticut for many years and have a permanent work visa,
known as a green card, that allows them to collect unemployment and work outside of jai alai. Others are in the United States
with temporary work visas and will have to return to Europe if they cannot find a job.
Jai alai players in Milford average about $50,000 per year, a figure that varies depending on their contracts and record of
winning games. Even for those who can stay in Connecticut, it will be difficult to find a job with the same kind of income.
''It's happening too fast,'' said Mr. Elesgarai, 31, who owns a home in Milford where he lives with his family, including
two young children. ''We have two months. A lot of people are going to be unemployed. It's going to be tough working outside
of jai alai.''
Photos: Milford Jai-alai, the last fronton in Connecticut, has announced it will close on Dec. 12 after 25 years of operation.
Lester Trotto, right, the mutuels manager, is one of 200 employees, including 48 jai alai players, who will be looking for