The business of ‘Banana Ball’: How the Savannah Bananas are changing baseball in Georgia and beyond
No advertising at the ballpark. No paid parking. Free unlimited hotdogs, hamburgers and sodas with the purchase of a $20 ticket.
As zany as the rules and on-field antics of the Savannah Bananas baseball team may be, the business decisions made by the organization are perhaps just as unorthodox.
“Leave your short-term profits on the floor, don't focus on sales revenue, as crazy as it is,” said Bananas owner Jesse Cole, whose team plays in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer baseball league unaffiliated with Major League Baseball.
Wearing his signature yellow tuxedo and top hat, Cole said that the starting point of innovation — whatever the industry may be — lies in eliminating friction between the audience and the product.
In fact, “eliminate friction” is the first principle in Cole's new book, Fans First: Change The Game, Break the Rules & Create an Unforgettable Experience, which outlines the business principles that he has developed since founding the team in 2016.
Sam Boyd takes Cole's ethos to heart, some 2,000 miles away in Montana.
“What the Bananas have been able to do for us at the PaddleHeads is challenge us to be uniquely us,” said Boyd, wearing an orange blazer festooned with the minor-league baseball team's moose mascot.
As the Missoula PaddleHeads' Director of Wow, much of Boyd's job involves writing skits starring the team's moose mascot, Paxton the PaddleHead, as well as Paxton's superfan, Ryan the Moose Tracker.
“I see every single game as a different storyline that we create with the characters that we have in the ballpark,” he said.
Ever since Boyd graduated from college, he's looked up to Cole. In fact, he considers Cole his mentor; they periodically text and call each other to check in.
The big leagues also have some looking up to do, if the Bananas' massive TikTok following is any indication. There, the team has more followers than every MLB franchise, including four times the number of followers as the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves.
“Looking at how the Bananas are able to really fasten the pace of play in their games, that's something that I think organizations and leagues are really going to start looking at,” said Tyler Skinner, a doctoral student of sports finance at the University of Georgia.
Don't expect the MLB to ever adopt the Bananas' “out-there” rules, Skinner said, such as when a foul ball caught by a fan results in an out. But he said that MLB may wish to emulate how the team is appealing to people who traditionally haven't cared about baseball.
People like registered nurse Julie Gibson.
“I would go to a ballgame with my husband, and it was boring,” Gibson said. “I just never got into the sport, so I'd take a book and read. But the first time I went to a Bananas game, it was fun. There was something to look at all the time."
Gibson has since created a Facebook group that acts as a ticket exchange for fans. With about 20,000 people on it looking to score one of the hottest tickets in all of sports, the group's membership has more than doubled since April, with Gibson receiving up to 150 new requests per day to join.
“I get people from literally the entire world,” Gibson said. “I think Australia is my furthest.”
Far-flung fans do, in fact, show up to Grayson Stadium: At one Bananas game this year, Cole proudly announced that the game had drawn in people from more than 30 states — and the Philippines.
To Boyd, the Bananas aren't about baseball so much as they're about being true to yourself, no matter how weird that self may be.
“What Jesse has created is he encourages people to be uniquely themselves,” Boyd said. “And being uniquely yourself makes you stand out and be different. That, in itself, is just a beautiful thing.”