Just over a year ago, the Savannah Sand Gnats (Low A; Sally League) announced they were leaving to become the Columbia Fireflies. With the community looking like it was going to lose baseball, Jesse Cole stepped in with his ownership group, Fans First Entertainment, to put a team in place. That team is the Savannah Bananas and they’ve been breaking records and turning heads ever since.
Cole began his journey in the Coastal Plain League by becoming the general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies in 2008, and eventually started his own ownership group, Fans First Entertainment, with wife and fellow owner Emily Cole. The pair had been looking at the area for quite some time before deciding to add another team.
“We had been looking into the area for about two years. Savannah is a great city with lots of attractions and had a great ballpark but there was low attendance,” Cole said. “We knew the minor league team here would be leaving. (Grayson Stadium) was built in 1926, was knocked down during a hurricane, and rebuilt in 1940. We did some research on the stadium. Franklin Roosevelt gave a speech here. Bob Dylan played a concert here. There’s just a lot of history here.”
With a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude, the Coles put some tender, loving care into Grayson Stadium and focused on revamping it in time for the 2016 Coastal Plain League season, and began looking for a new team name.
“On February 25th, we hosted a name the team contest and the Bananas came in on the first day. Everyone really liked it. I don’t think we anticipated how much attention it would get,” Cole said. “It was trending on Twitter. It made SportsCenter. We sold out of merchandise in 24 hours and it went to six countries and 49 of 50 states. That was when we knew it would be big.”
Cole said that members of the community were skeptical at first, but have since embraced the team and its philosophy of fans coming first.
“They didn’t know us. They didn’t know that our games are more than just great baseball. We’re different. We look at each game as a show every night,” Cole said. “People were intrigued by the name but when they come to games, they get it. Fans liked what we were doing and the word of mouth spread.”
And news of their success has spread like wildfire. The Bananas expect to finish with 17 sell outs in 24 dates (22 openings), and are averaging more than 3,500 fans a night, which is a huge turnaround from the previous tenants of Grayson Stadium. Cole added that they are on pace to break the league’s attendance record on Friday, despite having fewer games than the current record holder. So what is the secret to the team’s success?
“We try to provide as much entertainment as we can fit into 18 half innings. Every ticket we have is an all-you-can-eat ticket for $15. I think it’s been successful because people are buying into the value.”
And for Cole, the success of a second team may lead to a third but for now, him and his team are focusing on Savannah and continuing to grow and succeed in the Coastal Plain League.
“We signed a five-year lease and hope to be here for years to come. It’s a great league. There are lots of great markets in the southeast and we’re always open to other teams, but won’t look until potentially 2018,” Cole said. “My wife and I could have never hoped for such success. We have 120 game day staff that we are happy to be part of something special during our inaugural season. We are happy to be in Savannah and have a responsibility to continue baseball here.”
Image courtesy Savannah Bananas.
This article first appeared in the weekly Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.