The Savannah Bananas are the most entertaining baseball team in the country. Owner Jesse Cole outlines his vision for the stilts-wearing, bat-blazing, break-dancing club.
Above all, sports are supposed to be fun. That’s what Savannah Bananas co-owner Jesse Cole believes — and no other team in baseball has more fun than the Bananas.
If you’ve heard of the Bananas, it’s likely because of their innate ability to go viral on the backs of the outside-the-box ideas Cole and his team devise on a daily basis to turn baseball into something of their own: Banana Ball. Whether it’s breakdancing players and coaches, players stepping into the box with their bats literally ablaze, letting fans record outs by catching foul balls on the fly, or bringing former Major Leaguers like Bill “Space Man” Lee out of the stands to chug a beer and ring up a batter with the old “eephus pitch,” Banana Ball is unlike anything baseball has ever seen before.
Cole is less of your traditional sports team owner and more of the master of ceremonies on gameday. Donning his trademark banana yellow tuxedo, reminiscent of Charlie Day’s Dayman outfit in “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia,” Cole is the most recognizable figure on game days in Banana Land as he emcees each game with the flair of a rock and roll front man. But if you look past the tuxedo and the gimmickry, what you will find is the realization of a master plan 10 years in the making.
Road to the Show
Having grown up in Massachusetts as a stand-out baseball player, Cole turned down scholarships from local premier Division I baseball programs in favor of Wofford College, a small school in Spartanburg, South Carolina, on the promise of a change of scenery and the opportunity to compete against the likes of Clemson and the University of South Carolina. During his tenure at Wofford, his baseball career was cut short by a shoulder injury and when making the shift from playing the game to being a spectator, Cole realized that watching baseball was pretty boring.
After college, he set out to experiment with ways to make baseball more entertaining and ended up becoming the general manager of a minor league team based out of Gastonia, North Carolina at the age of 23. Cole spent a decade tinkering with different promotions and ideas to make the product of minor league baseball more appealing to the masses.
“I tested and experimented for 10 years before buying the Bananas,” Cole said.
In 2015, Cole and his wife Emily decided to go “all-in” and buy the rights to an expansion team in the Coastal Plain League, a collegiate summer league that already featured some colorful teams including the Macon Bacon and the Tri-City Chili Peppers. The two put everything they had into the team, racking up over a million dollars in debt while sleeping on an air mattress just for a chance to see their vision come to fruition.
“February 25, 2016 was the day everything changed,” Cole said. “That was the day we decided to name our team after a fruit. We were the number one trending topic on Twitter, which was saying something considering there was a Republican presidential debate taking place on the same day.”
In Cole’s mind, “Attention beats marketing 1,000% of the time” and the newly named Bananas certainly commanded a great deal of attention as the first game sold out quickly.
“Enough people wanted to see whether we were a train wreck. We wore green jerseys for the first game because we weren’t quite ripe,” he said. “The team ended up making six errors and much to my surprise, everyone stayed through to the end of the game.”
Fan First Entertainment
Ever since their debut game, Savannah has embraced the team, as it routinely sells out — and if you have ever taken in a Bananas game in person you can understand why. The atmosphere that the Coles created is nothing short of a two-plus hour party centered around their signature brand of baseball. For the modest price of $22 you not only get access to what some would argue is the greatest show in baseball but it also includes unlimited food and (non-alcoholic) drinks.
Among the keys to the Bananas’ success has been the Coles’ commitment to ensuring that every game features something new that the fans have never seen before.
“In 2015, I started writing out 10 new ideas a day from halftime shows to second base coaches and everything in between,” he said. “Every Monday we have something called ‘Over The Top Monday,’ where everyone from the organization brings there most over-the-top ideas to the table for new promotions. There has never been an idea that hasn’t made it on the field.”
The Bananas have become so popular that they attract fans from all over the country. Cole evens says families have come from as far away as Utah, driving 40 hours just to watch them play.
This national level of popularity and attention, which is due in no small part to the Bananas’ social media savvy has enabled them to take their show on the road. For the past two years, the team has embarked on a barnstorming baseball tour across the country called “The Banana Ball World Tour,” where they travel to towns from Birmingham to West Palm Beach, taking on any challenger that is willing to play by their rules.
“The Banana Ball World Tour is where we are going,” Cole said.
During the most recent stop in Birmingham, the Bananas sold out the oldest ballpark in the country, Rickwood Field, and even enlisted former Cy Young Award winner and World Series champ Jake Peavy to get a few outs, which he managed to do while sporting the literal Gold Glove he won in 2012.
As Cole alluded to, The Banana Ball World Tour represents the future of the business for the Bananas as it enables them to reach new audiences while expanding their opportunity to generate revenue beyond the summer ball season. But a traveling roadshow like this only becomes possible when you build a national brand that becomes synonymous with fun and not taking yourself too seriously. The mainstream sports world has taken notice as one of the recent stops on the Banana Ball Tour was broadcast live on ESPN+.
Cole expects the Bananas to have a broadcast deal with a distributor in the coming months but was not at liberty to disclose the identities of the potential suitors.
At the root of the Bananas’ success is a fundamental understanding that sports are meant to be fun and entertaining — and that fans are their biggest driver. The Coles have built a business predicated upon buy-in from their fans as opposed to sponsors or broadcast networks.
“If you look at major sports leagues, a very small percentage of revenue actually comes directly from fans — 98% our revenue comes from our fans, which is the reason the name of our company is Fans First Entertainment.”
To the “get off my lawn” sports traditionalist, the Bananas are nothing more than a gimmick-laden sideshow. But the one thing they fail to understand is that the things they paint as gimmicks are all part of the core philosophy of bringing the fans an entertainment product unlike anything they have ever seen. If you’re fortunate enough to get the opportunity to experience Banana Ball in person, you will quickly understand why the fans keep coming back.