Savannah Bananas owner Jesse Cole is always looking for ways to give fans more.
More fun, more value, more new and better stadium experiences.
It’s a business philosophy that helped make the Bananas baseball franchise a phenomenon, selling out Grayson Stadium to more than 4,000 spectators months in advance for six-plus years.
That popularity spurred a spinoff from the original Bananas, which since 2016 have played in the Coastal Plain League—a collegiate summer league with traditional nine-inning games—and won titles in 2016 and 2021. The Savannah Bananas Premier Team is a separate professional travel team that spring sold out 14 exhibition games in Savannah and six other cities, playing its unorthodox “Banana Ball” format.
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Regardless of which team is playing, the games have the Bananas brand of non-stop fun and baseball, as well as fan interactions before, during and after games with singing, dancing, silly promos and more. The players are full and videos of their antics have made Bananas a social media sensation with millions of followers.
Fans want more. The waiting list for single-game ticket requests has grown from about 30,000 in May to about 75,000 last week, according to the team. Each request can be for multiple tickets.
This ratio of supply and demand means that fans want far more than the Bananas can provide under the current structure.
“That’s why we’re going to add more cities, more games, we’re going to look for more opportunities,” Cole said in a June 27 interview. I believe we will be playing in front of a million fans by 2030.
Cole said the focus is on building fans, not increasing profits.
“You don’t focus on the next quarter, you focus on the next quarter century,” he said.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Do you have a goal?'” Yeah, I’d like to be a brand with a billion fans. I want to have a billion fans with B. … It’s crazy. You say a billion dollar company. I’d rather be a team with billions of fans. We’re going to have to go around the world to do that.”
Cole sat out this week to fuel speculation about the future of the highly successful varsity team, which will defend its CPL title in the Petitt Cup Championship Series this week. The Western Division champion, the second seed in the playoffs, will visit third-seeded Wilson (N.C.) Tobbs on Thursday night, with Game 2 in Savannah on Friday night and Game 3, if necessary, at Grayson Stadium on Saturday in the best- of three series.
The CPL regular season runs from the end of May to the end of July, and teams have 24 home games.
More Games in 2023
Cole said in the June interview that expanding the schedule for the Premier League team and their Party Animals team could mean 25 games or more in 2023. Cole has been in talks with major league organizations to arrange exhibitions at their fields and is receiving calls each week from representatives of cities across the country.
For the Scituate, Mass., native, one park comes to mind, Fenway, where he was a bat boy and played in college, but Cole said others have shown more interest by now.
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Expanding Grayson Stadium would reduce the waiting list somewhat for generations. Cole said he would like to install bleachers, but it’s not that simple because of the increased number of spectators, which puts a strain on the parking lot and restroom capacity.
“The smallest capacity (of the stadium) these people will ever see is what they’ve seen for the last six years,” Cole, whose team sells 4,500 tickets per game, said in June. “We will have more capacity in the future. I don’t know when that will happen. I focus on what I can control. What I can control right now is the tour, Banana Ball and these games. I can’t control a stadium. There are too many moving parts at this point.”
So more Banana Ball games like the ones coming up on August 19-20, August 26-27 and September 1-2 (all sold out) will help. Stay tuned for more seasonal series throughout the calendar year.
“Some people don’t like Banana Ball,” Cole, 38, said in June. “But do I believe this is the future? One thousand percent because I watch the fans. In the banana ball game, fans don’t leave the game early.”
While opponents may object to Banana Ball’s rules tarnishing the purity of the game, other fans are drawn to the faster pace and increased action in a two-hour time limit, as well as the league’s lack of rules. Banana ball games still revolve around balls and strikes, hitting and throwing, baserunning and defense between the lines. Outside the lines, almost all bets are off and the creative possibilities are wide open.
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The Banana Ball has garnered the most attention in the national print, television and online media and is something many fans travel from all over the country to see or click online to watch.
When the collegiate team is on the road for league games, it can’t take the banana show with them, and fans have expressed disappointment. And even his major league home games — as fun and wacky as they are — can’t match Banana Ball for an all-out assault on baseball norms.
Colleagues were the first to play with a kilt. Players perform rehearsed dance numbers between innings, kickline after introductions and run through the stands after scoring the Bananas’ first hit of the game.
The pro team — older players with college and professional experience — features a batter and pitcher on stilts, a trick pitcher who throws between his legs and pulls down his pants, a batter with a flaming bat and TikTok dance challenges seconds before pitching.
Former major leaguers, including 75-year-old pitcher Bill Lee, as well as more recent players Eric Burns, Jake Peavy, Johnny Gomes and Hall of Famer Johnny Bench have been involved in one way or another.
Ivan Trachuk, Bananas’ director of creative content, said the creative team did not see the different set of rules for the CPL and Banana Ball games as an obstacle.
“Restraint is a word I don’t like to use. We call them challenges,” Trachuk said. “Anybody but us would go into this Coastal Plain League season and say, ‘We need to take a step back and not do the things we did in Banana Ball where we can kind of dictate the flow of the game.’
“Immediately we all looked at each other and said we’re really excited about the challenge of this. How can we continue to deliver the content and energy that our fans expect in a league where we play baseball, No. 1, and other teams aren’t necessarily involved in the fabrications?”
Cole, in his iconic yellow hat and tuxedo, delivered corporate talks about business success by being different and focusing on the audience. In the future, the Bananas could also exert more influence over the minor league organizations affiliated with MLB teams and even the MLB teams themselves.
In March 2021, Cole stopped in Florida and held a workshop with the front office of the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Double-A Southern League affiliate of the Miami Marlins.
“I’m always looking for ways to get better,” said team owner Quint Studer, who has known Cole for some time. “I’ve always liked destroyers. I would call Jesse and the Savannah Bananas a real positive disruptor. What I mean by that is people who look at things a little differently and try things.”
Studer said the Blue Wahoos can’t play by Banana Ball’s rules, but they can learn from Savannah’s in-game promotions, use of music and other elements of the game-day experience, and business practices like serving customers. They now have a senior citizen dance troupe, the Silver Wahoos, like the Banana Nanas.
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“We expect to emulate a lot of what the Savannah Bananas do,” said Studer, who hasn’t heard any negative feedback about the Bananas’ style, only positives about attracting both baseball fans and those looking for a fun night out. “Now, as an affiliated team, we have a lot of players going to the majors, but still, if you want to be financially sustainable, you have to attract the non-baseball fans as well as the baseball fans.”
Following the 2021 One City World Tour with two sold-out games in Mobile, Alabama, Banana Ball expanded the tour this spring to the Southeast, as well as two games against an independent league team, the Kansas City Monarchs.
“Jesse has done a great job and he’s been great for baseball,” Studer said. “Our fans are a little confused sometimes because they want to know why we can’t play with the Savannah Bananas.”
Getting the show on the road
Why stop at the Southeast and Midwest? Trachuk said in late June that Cole was thinking about the Far East.
“Jesse has amazing ideas like the cruise where we take him to other countries that love baseball,” Trachuk said, “and going to Japan and these areas that have such a love for baseball even though they’re not in America. I think that would be great.”
Less awesome, he said, is the flip side of sellout game years, when demand is much higher.
“The hardest thing about this job is answering the phone and hearing someone say, ‘We’re coming from Ohio and we thought we’d be able to get tickets.’ Is it possible to get tickets?’ I’m like, ‘Sorry, it’s sold out,’ and it’s so hard.”
Trachuk said he prefers to change the conversation to, “I’m sorry you can’t see them in Savannah when you’re here, but we’re going to be in your area next month, so we’re coming to you.”
Nathan Dominitz is the sports content editor for the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at [email protected] Twitter: @NathanDominitz