Wednesday December 6, 2023

Savannah Bananas Break All The Rules To Hit The Mainstream

  • Team concludes 2023 tour with even-bigger plans for next year
  • Barnstorming baseball club intentionally veers away from the sport’s established culture
Savannah Bananas
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Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole has spent much of his career intentionally turning away from baseball’s established culture, but he couldn’t help but appreciate being in the cradle of the sport — Cooperstown, New York — to end the team’s 2023 so-called “World Tour.”

“I remember coming here as a kid, and looking up to the Hall of Fame, this town, this ballpark,” Cole told Front Office Sports. “To now bring the Bananas here before a sold-out crowd is really special.”

The Coopertown trip was the end of a hugely successful, seven-month run in which the Bananas definitively crashed the mainstream. Now, the team is looking beyond merely existing as a fad or a curiosity, and transforming into a lasting, influential force.

Kind Of A Big Deal

Loosely described as baseball’s version of the Harlem Globetrotters, the Bananas’ arrival in Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame for a final game at Doubleday Field indeed rang heavy with symbolism. 

The Bananas’ 2023 tour involved games stretching from California to Maine, drew more than 550,000 fans, had a ticket waiting list of more than 1 million names, and boosted the team’s TikTok following past 7.6 million — more than doubling last year’s total and larger than MLB’s official feed. And all for a team that no longer has any formal connection to established organized baseball.

Next up is a dramatic jump from playing in minor-league facilities to MLB ballparks, which will be confirmed on Oct. 5 when the Bananas unveil their 2024 tour plans. But through their on-field antics and full-throttle promotional strategy, the Bananas are teaching their pro counterparts a masterclass in how to engage and develop a new generation of baseball fans.

“It’s all about meeting people where they are,” Josh Rawitch, Baseball Hall of Fame president, told FOS. “Jesse’s a very big thinker, and they’ve hit on a model where they’re creating more baseball fans, and that’s good for everybody.”

Silly Or Brilliant?

On the surface, much of what the Bananas do might seem silly. 

By design, the team plays a style of baseball that flouts many of the sport’s established on-field rules and traditions. “Banana Ball” include a two-hour time limit on games, no mound visits or stepping out of the batter’s box, no bunting, batters having an option to steal first base, and defensive outs if foul balls are caught by fans.

Those modifications are complemented by a non-stop array of over-the-top in-game entertainment including choreographed dances, skits, singalongs, twerking umpires, trick plays, pyrotechnics, and players regularly mingling with fans — all of which become key content sources for the team’s social media feeds. 

To lean even more into this jovial style of play, the Bananas left the Coastal Plain League, a summer circuit for collegiate players, in 2022 to become a full-time, barnstorming club focused entirely on Banana Ball. 

The move firmly disassociated the Bananas from the established world of developmental baseball, in turn carrying some risk as the club defined itself as a pure-play entertainment entity. 

But for Cole and the Bananas, that path was the only logical way forward. His initial months of owning the club in late 2015 and early 2016 as a more traditional summer baseball operation quickly led to his overdrafting his bank account, selling his house, and nearly losing everything before leaning into the Bananas brand. And to Cole, staying in the Coastal Plain League would have meant limiting the team’s long-term potential.

“We believe we can create the greatest show in sports,” he said.

Beneath all the current fun, the mission underlying much of what Cole and the Bananas do is serious business, drawing from a variety of influences including Walt Disney, P.T. Barnum, Steve Jobs, the Grateful Dead, and WWE. 

It’s also where Cole believes the comparison between the Bananas and Globetrotters begins to ring less true, besides the fact that the outcomes of Bananas games aren’t scripted.

“Every night, we’re trying to do things on a baseball field that we’ve never done before. That’s one of the biggest differences between us and the Globetrotters,” Cole said. “Every night, we’re doing 10, 15 things that have never been done before. We push our idea muscle and creativity to the limit. And that’s what I think has helped us grow so much on social media.”

The team’s robust TikTok audience is joined by 2.1 million more followers on Instagram and 1.5 million on Facebook. Even the Bananas’ regular opponent, the Savannah Party Animals, have their own following of 1.4 million on TikTok that surpasses that of the New York Yankees. 

That Bananas creativity is also joined by a complete fearlessness of failure.

“We’re not afraid to do things that don’t work,” Cole said. “But we pride ourselves on learning faster. If we keep doing more, we’re going to learn faster. 

“That’s the secret sauce behind our fans-first mentality, that experimentation and the ability to not care if something doesn’t initially go as well as it could because we know we’re going to get better,” he said.

Fierce Independence

Cole’s against-the-grain mentality also applies to how the Bananas are owned and run. The club is held by just Cole and his wife, Emily, through their Fans First Entertainment company, with team president Jared Orton holding a small equity share. They have routinely dismissed overtures from prospective outside investors. 

The Bananas have also intentionally dismissed nearly all sponsorship — typically a core element of any team business operations — funding the business through sales of merchandise and $25 general admission and $75 Very Important Banana tickets that they insist carry no extra taxes or surcharges.

Amid the unwillingness to bring in new investors or introduce heavy amounts of corporate sponsorship, Cole is regularly engaging with MLB clubs, particularly about the forthcoming 2024 tour.

“We’ve been very fortunate to hear from a good amount of MLB teams about bringing the Bananas to their stadiums next year, and we’ve had a lot of great conversations,” Cole said. “You better believe we’re thinking big.”

Major League Attention

MLB clubs confirmed they are paying close attention to what Cole and the Bananas are doing.

“We’ve talked about his fans-first philosophy, and there’s a lot to like there, particularly around the notion of delivering a really great, highly entertaining experience for the fan, every time out,” Tim Zue, Boston Red Sox EVP and CFO, told FOS. “Our job here is to win a world championship every year, but even when we unfortunately fall short of that goal, we also need to provide the very best possible experience.”

Cole stops short of crediting the Bananas for influencing MLB’s 2023 dramatic renaissance, which has seen sharply improved game times and attendance and infused an overall lift in on-field action. He says the league has plenty of smart people of their own leading those reforms.

Others, however, still point to the Bananas’ growing presence.

“Part of our mission across baseball is to make the sport as relevant to the next generation of fans as it’s been to the ones before,” said Rawitch, who spent more than 20 years working for MLB clubs before taking the Hall of Fame post. “The Bananas have clearly hit on a different model on how to engage fans and be a socially driven organization.”

And when the Bananas are performing before franchise-record crowds in big-league stadiums in 2024, even more will undoubtedly be paying attention. 

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