THE TEAM REDESIGNING BASEBALL
Updated: Oct 5, 2020
This article was originally published on May 29th, 2019.
After a husband and wife duo poured all of their funds into starting a new baseball team and started sleeping on an air mattress. They realized that they need to shift their strategy from marketing the team to creating attention. Their business was no longer baseball, but entertainment.
Today, the team is a multi-million-dollar organization having sold out 58 straight games, broke the league attendance record. They have created one of the few minor league baseball teams in any division to have sold out their season three years in a row. They also have more than a thousand people on the waiting list to purchase season tickets, even after adding seats and reconfiguring the stadium to get as many fans in as possible.
The Savannah Bananas have taken baseball to a whole new level. Thriving on implementing modern changes to a sport which is often criticized for its archaic practices.
The story starts with Massachusetts native Jesse Cole (@YellowTuxJesse) and his wife Emily.
In 2008, a 23-year-old Jesse was hired as the general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies of the Coastal Plain League team, in North Carolina. A team that had only $268 in the bank account.
Jesse would explain to the team's owners his new idea. "We can no longer be a baseball team" Jesse says. "‘We need to be a circus, and maybe a baseball game will break out.’
During his time with the Grizzlies Jesse would meet Emily who was working for a minor league baseball team in Augusta, Georgia. Like Jesse, she also believed that fan-centric entertainment was the secret to success in baseball.
Emily would soon move to North Carolina, to work with the Grizzlies. A few months later, Jesse stopped a Grizzlies game between innings, brought the entire staff onto the field, and dropped to a knee in front of Emily.
"I had the ring inside a baseball which I carved open, and I proposed to her," Jesse says.
Emily said yes, cueing a 30-minute fireworks display before play could resume.
To celebrate, the couple planned a weekend trip to Savannah, Georgia. As avid baseball fans, one of their first stops was a minor league game, at Grayson Stadium, to see the Savannah Sand Gnats, of the South Atlantic League.
"We walked into this ballpark, and we fell in love," Jesse says.
"We could feel the history and the character coming out of it," Jesse says. "This beautiful brick, huge archways. I mean it was gorgeous."
But when Jessie and Emily looked around the grandstands, they realized the place was almost completely empty.
"It was a beautiful ballpark on a beautiful night, and the whole atmosphere was just sad," Emily remembers.
After conducting some research they learned that the Sand Gnats were planning to depart Savannah for Columbia, South Carolina, later in 2015. The Sand Gnats would later state “the poor condition of Grayson Stadium,” as one of the main reasons for their lack of support.
Jesse would go out to convince the commissioner of the Coastal Plain League to allow them to start the first-ever Coastal Plain League team in Georgia, in Savannah. The league would agree and the team would start in the 2016 season.
"We started calling everyone in this community," Jesse says. "‘We're here! We're gonna do baseball right! We're gonna make it fun! We're gonna have tons of entertainment!’ And what happened? Crickets. I mean, nothing. No one believed us."
The team sold just one season ticket in its first two months. With limited funds being brought in the new team began to over-draft their account. Therefore, Jesse and Emily decided to sell their dream home in Charlotte and move to Savannah. Putting all of their remaining funds into the team.
It was decided that a great team name could turn things around, by connecting with their new community. They announced a name-the-team contest, in the local newspaper for fans to submit suggestions. The Coles were looking for something unique. No generic animal names or weather phenomena. Something for Savannah to unite behind.
The competition received more than 1,000 entries. Some of the names considered as finalists included Anchors and Ports. However, one submission stood out. The Savannah Bananas.
After announcing the new team name the Savannah Bananas were No. 1 trending on Twitter.
Within 48 hours of unveiling their logo, they had sold merchandise to fans internationally and in 44 of the 50 United States.
However, the Savannah community had a different response.
"We got crucified," Jesse says. "They were saying the owners should be thrown out of town. ‘You guys are an embarrassment to this city’ ... ‘You'll never sell a ticket’ ... ‘Please leave our town’ ... ‘Who are you guys? Who do you think you are?’"
For the Bananas, however, all press was good press. The team sold out its Opening Night game.
"I think a lot of it was people just saying, ‘Let me go check out these crazy people. They're probably gonna fail. This is probably gonna be a joke,’ " Emily says. "But regardless, they bought the tickets and they showed up."
Over 4,000 fans arrived at Grayson Stadium for the Bananas’ June 2 season opener. However, not everything went to plan, as the game was stopped due to the rain.
The Bananas waited almost three hours to begin play. But even after the delay, their sellout crowd were still in their seats.
"There was 4,000 people still there waiting to watch the Savannah Bananas," Jesse says.
It was clear from the game itself that people weren’t staying to see quality baseball.
"I think we made six errors," Jesse says. "We were letting up runs left and right."
They stayed for the show
During their inaugural season, the Bananas set a new summer-collegiate Coastal Plain League attendance mark, attracting 91,004 to Grayson Stadium. Beating out the Peninsula Pilots who had set the previous record for single-season attendance when they brought in 77,171 fans during the 2014 season.
"If you are playing it safe you don't win," says Jesse. When examining baseball he noticed that many people felt baseball is long, slow, and boring; it doesn’t create that exciting energy anymore. "This isn’t your grandfather’s game."
In creating the Savannah Bananas strategy for success, Jesse looked towards his heroes P. T. Barnum, Walt Disney, and Major League Baseball owner Bill Veeck.
"I have three custom-made posters in my office of these guys. Walt Disney says, "It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” Bill Veeck says, “I don’t break the rules, I merely test their elasticity.” And P.T. Barnum says, “Without promotion, something terrible happens...nothing.” I live by these mantras!"
Utilizing the principles of Jesse's heroes the Bananas decided to build their name into their DNA. They would create attention for the team by leaning into what will make them different. Therefore, they went all-in on entertainment and the fans' first experience.
First came the Banana Nanas Senior Citizen Dance Team, the Banana Pep Band, The Banana Baby, Darius Johnson, the breakdancing base coach, and created music videos with the players.
Jesse had made the decision to make Savannah Bananas' games non-stop entertainment.
"We decided to put on a show every night. We reversed engineered what frustrates people and did the opposite."
"Next, we needed to do something different that would create attention. Whatever’s normal, we need to do the exact opposite. We had our players do choreographed dances and stared in music videos, and had our coach remake movie scenes like Mighty Ducks and Dodgeball. We created a morning beer festival called “Tap of the Morning to You Beer Fest.” We designed Dolce and Banana underwear with a banana on the crotch. We don’t even talk baseball; we haven’t announced a single baseball player on our Facebook all year.
The last step is creating the perfect experience for your customers. You need to love your customers more than you love your product." Jesse explained.
Jesse would also attend each game in his signature yellow tuxedo.
Something that has made the Savannah Bananas stand out, is their historic Grayson Stadium, which does not include a lot of modern technology and that is by design. Jesse understood the desire for families to disconnect for a few hours and have a great fun family experience at an affordable price.
One of the unique innovations is including all you can eat food in one set ticket price. This is a great example of his focus on creating the best possible experience for every fan.
“Families need time together without breaking the bank,” Jesse would add. “Food can be very expensive on top of the ticket price for many sporting events. We wanted to simplify the experience and have one ticket price that allows families to focus on the fun and not worry about overspending.”
As the seasons have gone on the circus has continued to flourish.
“So we’re constantly asking ourselves questions about keeping those traditions which have worked for our fans, while every year aiming toward new, new and new,” said Jared Orton (@jorton622), president of the Savannah Bananas.
In 2017, the Georgia city of Macon announced their new Coastal Plain League baseball team, the Macon Bacon.
The announcement of the new name, launched a social media food fight, between the Bananas and the new Macon Bacon.
The Savannah Bananas would release an official protest video, stating that they "will not tolerate the Macon Bacon." In the video, they urge fans to help #StopTheSizzle and save an adorable pig named Chunk.
The Bananas would introduce the promotion that fans can bring a pig to the ballpark, during Macon Bacon games.
Furthermore, during a 2018 game against the Macon Bacon, which coincided with a “St. Patrick’s Day” promotion, which included a green beer at the concession stands and kilts on the players.
It was not just a pregame stunt, either as the players would actually go on to ware the kilts during the game.
The kilts proved to be a winning strategy as the team walked off in the 9th inning for a 4-3 win.
It’s not just a show for the fans in the bleachers, at Grayson Stadium. The Savannah Bananas created a nightly performance produced by fans and players alike. It is that same sense of involvement that leads families to plan their summers around the Bananas’ schedule.
The players who make up the teams of the Coastal Plain League are collegiate players who want to continue to play during the summer months, while the NCAA is off. With the goal of impressing the professional baseball scouts who often attend games, which hopefully would lead to eventually being drafted by a major league organization.
With so much at stake, the players are all serious about baseball. Therefore, it might be expected that selling young players on coming to the circus of the Savannah Bananas must be a hard job. As they are expected to do everything from shooting videos to handing out game programs to wearing ridiculous yellow uniforms.
However, Bananas head coach Tyler Gillum (@Gillum13) explains “I had to turn down probably 400 to 500 players.”
“I got calls from players. I got calls from coaches trying to place players. They all know what it’s like here. Our social media people kill it every year, and they see videos and photos of 4,000 fans in the stands every night. They want to be part of this.”
Gillum says the vetting process to fill out the current 36-man roster was intense. “Not anyone can be a Banana,” says Gillum. “I have to make sure we have good guys who are doing the right things off the field, because you’re in a fishbowl down here. Everyone knows who you are.”
The unique culture of the Bananas franchise is another key point. “The focus on fan entertainment trickles over to the baseball side,” says Gillum. “The kind of guys who play hard and are good teammates tend to be the same guys who have the right personalities to dance in music videos and sign 200 autographs a night.”
Gillum explains that players usually arrive at Grayson Stadium for early work around 3 p.m., then take batting practice at 4 p.m. Then, after a half-hour of downtime in the clubhouse, they flip that switch.
“At 5:30 our players are sectioned off to different parts of the park until 6:40 doing media guide handouts as the fans show up,” he says. “This isn’t some random person giving out media guides. It’s players saying thanks for coming out and building connections with fans.”
The Savannah Bananas are offering not just a great opportunity for fans but also the best possible training for players aiming for the majors.
Time demands on big leaguers are constant. The media want access. Advertisers want access. Of course, fans want access. All of this comes at players as they stay prepared to excel at the highest level of the sport.
The glare isn’t nearly as bright in Savannah as it is at a major league park, but it’s a pretty good approximation. For every home game, Gillum and his staff have to create a highly detailed schedule to keep players balanced between their baseball obligations and their responsibilities to the fans and front office.