Savannah Bananas Drop Sponsorships and Put Faith in Fan Experience

    • Savannah baseball team drops advertisers with no immediate plans to make up the 10-20% in revenue.
    • “We’re able to serve the fans strictly Bananas content,” team president says.

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The Savannah Bananas are dropping sponsors in an effort to make more money.

The collegiate summer wood bat league team made the announcement last week with no immediate plans to recoup the 10- 20% revenue loss caused by dropping advertisers, but team management is optimistic about the future.

“I don’t think we have the answer today, but we don’t have to make up hundreds of thousands of dollars today,” Savannah Bananas President Jared Orton said. “On a short-term level? No. What it will allow us to do in the long term is challenging us to create revenue opportunities solely based on building more fans, creating more experience and serving more people in the way we want to serve them.”  

The unorthodox approach to sports business is head scratching to Jim Kahler, executive director of the AECOM Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University. Kahler said there are studies that show people expect ads when they go to sporting events, and find them part of the entertainment mix and ambiance.

“They’re not following best practices,” Kahler said. “Who’s going to follow that train? Nobody.” 

In a small market in Georgia, the sports sponsorship model of either selling more real estate or selling the same real estate for more made Bananas management feel like the Yellow Pages, Orton said. That methodology made the ownership group, Fans First Entertainment, feel like they were jeopardizing the ballpark experience.

Now, without sponsorships, the outfield walls will be green and fans won’t see digital board advertisers or even ads on social media or the website. The result is an aesthetic not unlike Augusta National Golf Course- 120 miles to the north- but with a slightly rowdier summer baseball crowd. 

“We’re able to serve the fans strictly Bananas content,” Orton said. “Fans don’t come to a game to hear that. They don’t follow on social for that salesmanship.”

The ballpark experience, however, doesn’t seem to be suffering after 88 straight sellouts at Grayson Stadium, with an average of 4,173 fans per game. Last season, the Bananas led the Coastal Plains League in attendance with 117,729 fans- more than twice as many as the second-place Macon Bacons. A built-in fan base helps: prior to 2017, Grayson was home to the Savannah Sand Gnats, a Single-A affiliate of the New York Mets.  

While Orton said the initial conversations with sponsors were awkward, they ultimately have all kept their ticket and hospitality packages. Rather than expecting those clients to spend an additional $10,000 to $20,000 on sponsorship packages and advertising, Orton said they’ll look to build out a business helping other businesses connect with customers.

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“The way we can serve better is sharing this message of customer and client experience,” he said. “Speaking to businesses and hosting workshops to map their own client experience based on how we turn customers into fans and our biggest marketers and advocates.”

Whatever happens, Orton said it helps they aren’t currently tied down to sponsorship packages. Instead, Orton said the Bananas put fans first and, rather than ask how much money they can charge for something, ask how to make fans come more often while paying full price and share their experience with the masses.

It’s that mission of retention that allows them to drop the sponsorship revenue. Orton said the organization set out to be sustainable through just ticket sales, merchandise and food and beverage – all of which won’t rise this season.

“For most organizations, if they don’t have sponsorship revenue, they fall apart,” Orton said. “For us, the sponsorships was the gravy.”

It helps a bit the team doesn’t have to pay player salaries. The Coastal Plains League is one of 14 NCAA-sanctioned summer leagues that use college players with remaining eligibility. The Bananas do have to pay for the team’s travel and equipment, however. And though currently prohibited from paying the collegiate athletes, Orton is hopeful the team will soon be able to pay players more than they might make in Minor League Baseball, where Single-A salaries are $1,100 a month.

Along with potentially paying the players in the future, the Bananas management also isn’t ruling out the return of partnerships. Some still will remain in place, like the Savannah Bananas Beer brewed with Service Brewing Company. 

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“We’re always interested in providing value to our fans,” Orton said. “We’re not out there saying, ‘Buy this beer.’ It’s just a cool partnership that adds value to our fans. It’s a win for the  brewery, a win for our fans and a win for us.”

The brewery doesn’t pay a fee for the ability to make Savannah Bananas Beer, however. The removal of ads comes from the ultimate goal of creating an experience for fans.  

“There’s ways to partner [in authentic ways],” Orton said. “We went into it with the idea we have to go full-tilt of what does an ad-free experience feel like?”