The Savannah Bananas have emerged as a TikTok sensation, garnering more than three million followers to Banana Ball — the team’s unique brand of baseball. As owner and ringleader of the Bananas, Jessie Cole has managed to deliver an experience that sometimes resembles a circus for all the on-field and in-the-stands antics that take place on game day at 4,000-seat Grayson Stadium. Among the many unique nuances of Banana Ball, batters may hit from stilts, games have a two-hour time limit, and if a fan catches a ball in the stands, the batter is out. AB executive editor Andy Berg caught up with Cole to talk about how he reimagined the national pastime and in doing so attracted a broad fanbase to a sport that in its traditional form has often been deemed by many as slow, boring and stale.
What can fans expect when they come out to a Savannah Bananas game?
It’s very hard to describe what we do. It’s like a circus and a baseball game break out at once. You know we have one mission and that’s to make baseball fun. So from players playing in kilts to players on stilts to breakdancing coaches to dancing players to a senior citizen dance team called the Banana Bananas to a Banana baby that we lift up in the air to a Banana pep band to a dancing umpire — you name it, we try it here in Banana Land. And we’ve been fortunate after some real adversity to have developed quite the fanbase.
What made you think there was an opportunity to reinvent the game of baseball with the Bananas?
Well, I started as GM of this team at 23 years old, and on the first day I was there, there was $268 in the bank account and there were only 200 fans coming to the games. So it really depends on where you start. I realized that baseball was in a challenging spot. Even at the Major League level, attendance was declining. The average baseball fan was over 60 years old, viewership was declining in every sense. When you ask most people, ‘Do you like baseball?’ a lot of them say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay, it’s kind of too long, too slow, too boring.’ So as I started seeing that over and over again, we said, ‘You know, what if it was the exact opposite? What if it was nonstop entertainment? What if it was fast? What if it was unbelievably exciting?’ And that’s what we tried to create.
I’ve heard you referred to as the banana and a circus ringleader. What’s your role at the games?
I’ve been called a lot of things. But, yes, I think “ringmaster” is one word that I’ve heard a lot. As the owner of the team, I believe my job is to give our staff, our players, our cast and our fans permission to have fun. So, yes, I wear a yellow tuxedo every single day. It’s my uniform when I put it on, it’s showtime. And I’m out in the crowd, and I’m on the mic, and I’m throwing T-shirts and Dolce Banana underwear. And the crowd is singing along, I’m dancing, and I’m leading the crowd to come to this place where they can really escape everything that’s going on in their world and just have fun and not care what anyone else thinks and just express themselves. And that’s what I try to do every night at the ballpark.
Talk to me about baseball and its traditions, and how you either honor or dismiss those in your pursuit of giving fans a new and engaging experience?
I was a guy who played baseball my whole life. I had a big love of baseball. I grew up in it. I was one bond me and my dad had. I had the dreams of playing professional baseball until I got injured. But I realized there’s a big difference between watching a game and playing a game. Playing it can be a lot of fun, watching could be a different story. And so similar to one of my biggest mentors, Walt Disney, I had a moment like him when he was sitting on a park bench in Griffith Park, watching his two daughters, Diane and Sharon, go on a carousel. And he said, “Man, I wish there was a place that adults and kids could have fun together.” And I realized that we could do that here if it wasn’t just the same boring, traditional game. So, yeah, big mindset for us is whatever is normal, do the exact opposite. And so in my book, Fans First, I talk about the five E’s to creating raving fans. The first E is to eliminate friction, to look at all those boring parts, all those normal parts that don’t get people excited in the baseball game and change them. Every ticket is all-inclusive at our ballpark here in Savannah. That includes all your burgers, hotdogs, chicken sandwiches, soda, water, popcorn, dessert. There’s no ticket fees, no convenience fees. We invented a brand-new game — Banana Ball. It’s a two-hour time limit, there’s no walks, there’s no bunts, there’s no stepping out, and if a fan catches a foul ball, it’s an out. But fans stay until the end of the game, and they don’t want to leave their seat because it’s something new and exciting. That’s what we tried to do and tried to create.
Do you think the lessons you learned with the Bananas can translate to other organizations that are maybe looking to re-energize their staff and re-engage with customers?
Oh, 100 percent. You know, I believe there are two types of businesses out there. There’s the type of business that’s chasing customers and the type of businesses that are creating fans. And I believe if you create fans, your business will endure for a long time, no matter what industry you’re in. It’s just a different conversation. So many people in their industry talk about “How do you drive sales, revenue and profits?” We don’t have those conversations here in Banana Land. We talk about “How do we create fans?” Every meeting we ask, “What does it mean to be fans first? What would create fans?” What if you focused on your long-term fans over your short-term profits? Well, the revenue and the profits end up taking care of themselves. And we’ve been fortunate to see that happen. And so whatever industry you’re in, it’s truly looking at what are we doing every day to create fans, to create evangelists, because right now, we spend zero dollars on marketing. And we still have a waitlist for tickets over 80,000. I’ve been so fortunate to sell out every single game with zero dollars in marketing because, fortunately, we’ve learned how to create fans.
Being a former baseball player, you must know a lot of baseball folks and people who work in the industry. What do they think of what you’re doing?
I think it’s a mixed bag. Obviously, from the purists and traditionalists, we do get some criticism. But you know, I believe if you’re not getting criticized, you’re playing it too safe. We’ll get a little criticism, people saying, “Oh, it’s just a circus. All you guys do is dance.” Well, the reality is we won more games over the last six years than any team in our previous league. And we’ve done a lot of things that have shown that you can win while having fun. So, you know, a lot of people say, “Oh, these guys are just, you know, having fun.” But I think a lot of people, once they see it, they say, “Wow, this is talented guys and they’re having a great time.” And it spreads. It’s contagious. You watch 82-year-olds in our stadium dancing for two hours straight. I mean, we had literally a great grandmother, 95 years old, who came up to me at that game and hugged me and then said, “I want to dance with you.” She started dancing at the end of the game. She’s like, “That was the most fun. I don’t want to stop dancing.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s do this.” That’s what we try to do — to get people’s best selves to come out and really have fun.
How does the entertainment factor work with an actual league where there are standings?
We’ve had two teams. We had a team that plays in the Coastal Plain League, which is a regular traditional baseball league. And then we have our team that plays Banana Ball, which plays other teams playing that Banana Ball. Everyone knows what they’re getting themselves into. In the traditional league, we’ve won the last two championships. We’ve won more games than any team, anyone in the league, playing traditional baseball, but we still dance. We still celebrate. We still do crazy hitting entrances. We still do all the things that we can do within their parameters. But to be honest, we just have more fun than anyone else. I think we only lost three games at home this entire year. If you think about your job, or if you think back to maybe when you were in school back in the day, the classes that you really enjoyed, where you had fun, you perform better. The jobs that we all did that maybe in high school or college we just had to fill in and we didn’t really love it, we didn’t have fun with it, we didn’t do a good job. But when you find something that gives you energy, and everyone goes, “Jesse, you have so much energy. How do you do it?” I go, “I do what gives me energy all day.” Even just sharing with you right now gives me energy. So I will do it better than someone without energy. You know, I think that’s so important — that the guys on the field have more fun and in turn it translates pretty well onto the ballfield.
What do you see in terms of the future of professional baseball? Do you think there’s room for the MLB to embrace change and offer fans a more exciting experience?
Yeah, I mean, Major League Baseball has a great opportunity. Fortunately for them, they’re over $10 billion in revenue. Their revenues are climbing more than anything. Unfortunately, their fan base is declining, and especially in the younger fanbase. So they have an opportunity to drive tons of revenue, but they need to think into the future and how you’re going to drive future fans. I was sleeping on an air bed six years ago, when we sold two tickets, had to sell our house and we’re down to our last dollar. But now to think we have over three million TikTok followers, which is two million more than any MLB team, and our following has grown considerably. It’s because we focus on that young audience. So what does a young audience want? Well, the reality is, we are in a TikTok world. People get entertained at their fingertips just by swiping every six to eight seconds. Ballgames are over three hours long. So, for us, we’re trying to build a highlight world. Every hitter has a special entrance. Every fielder can do a trick play between their legs. Every pitcher can do trick pitches and strikeout moves like WWE. There are all these moments that we’re trying to create, and you better watch because you might miss something. In Major League Baseball, you watch the Sports Center highlights, 30 seconds of the best moments, but the other three hours, there’s not much exciting play. We need to build a game that’s more fun, that lets players express themselves, that lets players celebrate more to attract that younger fanbase.
It seems like the sky’s the limit for what you might try with the Bananas. Any new ideas you’re working on right now?
Our first TV series just debuted on ESPN 2 — “Banana Land” — and now it’s on ESPN+ every Friday. The first few minutes opens sharing about me and my idea journal. Every day I write down 10 ideas, and I’ve been doing this since 2015. So thousands of thousands of terrible ideas. But the only way you can get great ideas is if you constantly work that idea muscle and continue to push yourself every day — just like training and working your body and exercising. You have to do it every single day. Do something to keep you going. I mean, we’re like Saturday Night Live. Every weekend, we’re putting down completely brand-new skits that people have never seen before. Obviously people have seen us with the stilts, and they’ve seen us with the bats on fire. They’ve seen us with two guys doing splits and ballet hitters and ballet pitchers. So just stay tuned, because I would say every night at the ballpark we’re now doing more like 10 to 15 new things we’ve ever done before. We’ll eventually have guys skydive to their positions in the middle the game. We’ll eventually have a guy ride a bull from the bullpen. We’ll eventually have a ball monkey that delivers balls to the umpire. We’re just getting started.
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Bananas’ Jesse Cole Turns Customers Into Fans — And So Can You" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.