Coastal Plain League

How The Savannah Bananas Are Reinventing Baseball

How The Savannah Bananas Are Reinventing Baseball

The Savannah Bananas are turning the traditional baseball model on its head with a fan-friendly experience.

Sep 15, 2021 by Stephen Kerr
How The Savannah Bananas Are Reinventing Baseball

P. T. Barnum once said, “no one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.”

To call Jesse Cole a modern-day Barnum would not be an exaggeration. While his name may not be as familiar as the former circus king, the owner of the Savannah Bananas has put together the greatest baseball show on earth. Each game is a carnival-like atmosphere, featuring everything from dancing players to coaches dressed as peanut vendors.

Since launching the team in 2016 through his parent company, Fans First Entertainment, Cole has been driven by one goal: to give baseball back to the fans and make it fun again. He studied visionaries like Barnum, Walt Disney and Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball owner known for his outrageous, fan-friendly promotions. All three inspired him to create unique experiences at every Bananas game. If it’s normal, Cole vows to do the opposite.

“We’re not in the baseball business, we’re in the entertainment business,” the 37-year-old Cole explained. “When you believe in it so much and go all in, we’ve found fans go all in on us.”

Cole is turning the traditional baseball business model on its head. The Bananas are the first franchise with an ad-free ballpark. One ticket covers everything, including all-you-can-eat concessions and parking. Team merchandise is sold without shipping charges throughout the United States. Players perform in music videos during a game. The team has partnered with schools, churches, and nonprofits in the community to raise over half a million dollars in the past six years.

“If you can find one person and make their experience something they’ll never forget, those are the types of experiences that help us achieve our goals of putting fans first,” said member services coordinator Carson Bowen, who served as general manager of the Wilmington Sharks before joining the Bananas last November. “We’re successful because everyone is very passionate about what they do.” 

Cole’s journey to that success is as fascinating as the man himself. Born in Scituate, Massachusetts, he began attending baseball camps at age five. After high school, he pitched for Wofford College, and was on the radar of several major league teams.

But things quickly fell apart during Cole’s senior season. An MRI revealed three major tears in his shoulder. Doctors gave him the sobering news he would never pitch again. Just like that, his dream of playing professionally was over.

As devastating as the diagnosis was, Cole credits his father for helping him put things in perspective and move forward.

“He was always the positive person,” Cole recalled. “He helped me get out of the tough moment that I was in.”

Cole tried coaching in the Cape Cod League, but found it wasn’t for him. In 2007, he was offered a position as general manager of the CPL’s Gastonia Grizzlies. It was quite a task for a 23-year-old’s first job out of college. The team was on the verge of collapse, having lost $100,000 the previous year, and attendance had plummeted. 

Instead of a hopeless situation, Cole saw opportunity.

“You learn more in the challenges and adversity than you do in the successes,” he said. “I realized I had to learn a lot, and I had to learn it fast.”

Cole immediately began meeting with fans and community leaders. Their initial reaction mirrored his own frustrations about the state of baseball: the action was too slow and games took too long.

“I realized at that point that if we want to have success, we’re never going to be the best baseball team,” Cole said. “We’re not the Atlanta Braves, we’re not the Yankees. We’re college summer baseball. The only thing we can win is if we’re in entertainment.”

Cole began advertising choreographed dances and offbeat promotions like Flatulence Fun Night and grandma beauty pageants. The Grizzlies went from 200 fans a game to fourth in the country in attendance.

Cole met his wife Emily during that period, who came over from Ripken Baseball to become entertainment director. Cole proposed to her during the Grizzlies’ final home game of the 2014 season in front of a sellout crowd, complete with fireworks and an engagement ring inside a baseball.

“Thank goodness she said yes,” Cole said. “It would have been embarrassing in front of all those fans.”

The next day, Emily surprised him with a trip to Savannah. While there, they attended a minor league game. Cole fell in love with the ballpark right away. There was just one problem.

“There were no fans there,” he recalled. “For a minor league game, there were less than 200.”

The team eventually departed due to lack of support, and Cole convinced the CPL to approve a franchise. Once again, he saw an opportunity out of failure. But this time, he would be starting from scratch. 

To say the cupboard was bare would be an understatement. When Cole and his staff walked into the facilities for their first day of operation, they discovered all phone and Internet lines had been cut, and the stadium was completely empty. They brought in a picnic table, set up shop in an abandoned storage building, and used their cell phones to make calls and get the word out.

Not one person was interested.

“We were coming into an incredibly negative situation, especially when we told people we weren’t going to be a minor league team,” said Bananas president Jared Orton, who came over from Gastonia with Cole. “We were going to be a collegiate summer league team, so that really threw people off.”

The lowest point came on January 15, 2016, when the bank informed Cole their account was overdrawn, causing the team to miss payroll.

“Jesse, we’ve got to sell our house,” Emily told him. “We have no other option.”

It would have been easy to give up at that point. But Cole was convinced the success he achieved in Gastonia could be duplicated in Savannah. He just needed more time. The couple sold their house, emptied out their savings, and slept in a shack on an airbed.

Cole began pitching many of the same out-of-the-box ideas that turned the Grizzlies’ fortune around. A contest was held to pick the team name. The initial reaction to Bananas was anything but positive.

“We were ripped apart,” Cole recalled. “People told us, ‘you guys are an embarrassment’ and ‘leave our town now’. It was bad.”

But the name eventually caught on and became part of the team’s unique brand. That season, the Bananas went from selling just two tickets in the first three months to sold-out crowds in 18 of their first 25 home games. They captured the CPL championship, quite an accomplishment for a first-year franchise. 

The Bananas have become a nationwide phenomenon over the past five years. Games regularly sell out, and the waitlist for tickets is over 12,000. The team has 31.3K followers on Twitter and over 200,000 on TikTok, more than any major league team.

Fans travel from all over the country to take in the Banana experience, which includes a senior citizen dance team and a male cheerleading squad. Players dress in kilts and perform choreographed dances, emulating everyone from Michael Jackson to Britney Spears.

The head coach wears cowboy boots and rides a horse around the ballpark. The rest of the coaching staff consists of a luchador, a nine-year-old, and a grandma who bakes cookies and coaches from a rocking chair in the dugout. Even Cole has his own trademark, a yellow tuxedo he regularly wears to games and appearances.

Concessions offer fans their choice of Banana Beer, Banana Split Cream Soda, and a specialty alcoholic beverage called the Slippery Banana. One of the most popular promotions is the Banana Baby. Each night, babies outfitted in a banana costume are selected from the crowd and lifted up while the entire stadium sings the opening song to “The Lion King”. 

The Bananas are no joke on the field. They captured their second league championship this past season, putting 13 players on the All-CPL first and second teams. Since 2016, up to 10 Banana players have been picked in the MLB draft each year.

In 2020, the Bananas managed to play through the coronavirus pandemic. They had the advantage of being outdoors where fans could spread out. The season was pushed back, games were kept within the area, and capacity was limited to 25 percent. Fans and players wore masks at all times, and testing was done regularly.

“We had the blessing of the health department to do it, and we had the support of fans, players and staff,” Orton said. “We told people if they didn’t feel comfortable coming to those games, that’s OK. We’ll take care of you, and you can come out next year.”

It’s not easy to keep raising the bar. But Cole is never one to rest on his laurels. He’s putting together a Premier Team that will tour the country entertaining fans with their version of ‘Banana Ball.’ His next big vision is the construction of a Walt Disney-inspired Bananaland, touting it as “the most fun ballpark in the world.”

Call him eccentric, oddball, goofy. That’s just fine with Cole. He’s seen and heard it all. Nothing will stand in the way of his commitment to create an experience fans will remember for a lifetime.

“Our mission is, ‘fans first, entertain always’,” Cole explained. “That will never make us go astray.”