In 2016, the first-year Savannah Bananas were named the Coastal Plain League Organization of the Year after setting a new single-season league attendance record (91,004), and owners Jesse and Emily Cole were named Coastal Plain League Executives of the Year. In 2017, the Bananas broke their own league attendance record with a total gate of 108,498, extending their franchise sellout streak to 32 consecutive games. On January 24th, the Bananas announced that they had already sold out all 2018 ticket packages.
Co-Owner Jesse Cole shared lessons and strategies from the Bananas’ success and his early days as a young Gastonia Grizzlies (summer collegiate; Coastal Plain League) executive in his first book, “Find Your Yellow Tux: How to Successful by Standing Out.” The top Banana sat down this week with Ballpark Digest’s own author named Jesse to share his thoughts on his experiences, his new book, and the national pastime.
BPD’s Jesse Goldberg-Strassler: You pitched before you became a baseball executive. While you were playing baseball, did you have any thoughts about life outside of the white lines?
Jesse Cole: I was solely focused on baseball. When I was five years old, my father bought a baseball facility up in Massachusetts. They called me a club rat. It was the South Shore Baseball Club and I was always there, hitting in the batting cages and throwing. I was obsessed with baseball. That was my whole path. I was hoping to play pro ball. I was fortunate to get a Division I scholarship at Wofford College – and then in my junior year I tore everything in my shoulder, so that quickly ended my career. I thought about getting into coaching, but I realized at that point it was a lot different watching a game vs. playing a game. So very quickly I got out of coaching and jumped right into a job as a general manager at 23 years old.
Q: You’re 23, you’re named general manager of the Gastonia Grizzlies. How much did you learn from that experience?
Jesse: I’ll never forget, 23 years old, showed up that first day and found out the real numbers. [I] found out that the team had lost over $100,000 a year, I found out that there were only a couple hundred fans coming to the games, and I found out that there was only a couple hundred dollars in the bank account. So it was at that moment that I realized, wow, we’re a seriously challenged team, one of the lowest performing teams in the country based on attendance. I was fortunate to have an amazing owner, Ken Silver, who was unbelievably supportive of me and open to any and all suggestions to make the team successful.
We realized right away that we had to be one hundred percent in the entertainment industry. I was fortunate to go into a lot of different conferences [and] started reading like crazy. I went and met Mike Veeck and started realizing what they were doing with all of their teams and the Fun is Good philosophy. From there I said, all right, we’ve got to get crazy. And we started doing a wide range of ridiculous things and that’s where we really started to learn what was successful and what wasn’t. But it wasn’t about baseball. It wasn’t about wins and losses. That was a big difference.
Q: Who’s your ideal reader for “Find Your Yellow Tux”?
Jesse: Young entrepreneurs. There’s a lot of people in the sports industry that have been attracted by the book, but it was young entrepreneurs. But here’s the crazy thing – I’ve heard more from retired individuals and people in the corporate world and feedback from people from Australia and Africa reaching out, saying, “Wow, this book really helped me look at business differently. I wish I would have read this 20, 30 years ago.” That’s been the big surprise. I always say, you just gotta start. Stop thinking, start doing. I never would have known that if I hadn’t put the book out there.
Q: The lessons of the book – the importance of being a sponge, the significance of a yellow tux, a team’s biggest fans are its own employees – what was the first of those lessons that you remember learning?
Jesse: I think the first lesson was the Mirror Moment. I believe every business has to go through this. The mirror moment was for me when I realized what business we’re in – what business we’re really in. And I realized that the team could not succeed as a baseball team. It had to be one hundred percent about entertainment. The big “Ah ha!” moment was when I realized that literally the baseball team in Gastonia had been there for seven years and nobody knew it. I made ten phone calls that first day. Seven of them never knew who the team was, two of them said they’d never work with us, and one person hung up on me. (laughs) It was at that moment that I literally realized that, hey, we gotta be something dramatically different to stand out…
I’ll go a little further there. The second one is that attention beats marketing one thousand percent of the time. We realized that if you’re not creating attention, you don’t have the eyes and ears of your potential customers. We had to create attention to get people to notice us, especially at a low level like college summer baseball. Most companies are focused solely on marketing, putting out the emails, putting up the social media ads. If you create attention, the marketing becomes easy.
Q: What’s the most recent lesson that you remember learning?
Jesse: Just two years ago, my wife and I had to sell our house, we had to empty out our savings account, and we literally had to go all in. We were sleeping on an air bed, we had cockroaches, we had ants, it was one of the worst experiences of my life. It was at that moment I realized, hey, we had to get people to notice. We couldn’t be doing the same normal things everyone else is doing. Normal gets normal results. Whatever’s normal, do the exact opposite. That’s why when we chose the Savannah Bananas name, it was not just choosing the name of a team, it was choosing our whole identity, how we were going to be over the top and crazy and fun in everything we were going to do in building that attention into our DNA.
That epiphany two years ago – we had marketed for six months, non-stop, yet no one cared, no one paid attention. We sold one season ticket in our first two months! Literally, it was the worst ever. And that was why we had to empty out our savings account. We had no money, we overdrafted our accounts, it was unbelievably painful and tough, but from there it became very easy – that we have to be non-stop entertainment, non-stop crazy, and fun. Fortunately now [we’ve] sold out 32 straight games, we have a wait-list in the thousands for this next year. I’ve never seen anything like it. As we go into 2018, the entire season will be sold out before the year even starts, which I don’t know has ever happened at this level.
Q: Let’s say tomorrow the two of you were to start up a Savannah Bananas-type team again. What would you do differently?
Jesse: I think I would have started everything earlier. For instance, we took months to be able to come out with the name and create the identity. I would have started the identity very quickly. I would have started creating attention right away. I would have done things that people wouldn’t have expected. I wouldn’t be afraid to be who we are. When you come into a community, everyone wants to fit in. I would be okay with standing out right away. People are either going to be supportive or they’re not… I would have taken even more risks. Three months ago we came out with the first ever banana underwear, Dolce & Banana, and it got a lot of criticism but we also created a lot of excitement. I would have started doing that right away.
Q: There are so many great stories in “Find Your Yellow Tux” from Gastonia and Savannah. What did you leave on the cutting room floor that you wish there was space to put in there?
Jesse: The things that I left out are the amazing stories about our people. I look at our staff, 22 to 27 years old. We’ve had zero turnover and it’s unbelievable. I don’t think I talked about it in the book – we let our people name their own salaries. We give our people ownership and the opportunity to run their life, run their job the way they want to. That’s where I’m excited about the next book, about Fans First, because I think any business, any team can build that… creating a culture where you love your employees more than you love your customers, more than you love your product.
Q: You wrote something midway through the book that stood out to me, that your longterm goal is to change the game of baseball. What are the next steps in that process?
Jesse: Just writing about that this morning, actually. The mirror moment, in any type of business, any type of industry – what frustrates you about the business, what upsets you about the industry. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. It’s very, very easy to see that a lot of people are very upset with baseball and how long the game is, how many people think it’s boring, it’s too slow. So in changing the game of baseball, you need to get away from tradition. You need to literally start thinking about how can you speed up the game, how can you make it more exciting, more fun, more celebration… If we are to create the perfect baseball-type experience where the game and the rules are changed a little bit, what would that look like? The next step on that is potentially looking in the next two, three years. Could we develop the perfect baseball league? I wouldn’t even call it baseball. The perfect new form of baseball that would make customers and guests and fans just blown away and wanting more.
I’ll share this, one of the biggest challenges that I see: We sell out every single game, which we’ve now sold out 32 straight and our season’s going to be sold out before the year, you can’t get tickets – there’s literally scalpers outside a college summer baseball game selling tickets for two times face value, there’s a wait-list in the thousands, people can’t get tickets – yet in the seventh or eighth inning, some people are still leaving before the game’s over. If that doesn’t tell you something about baseball as a whole, even when we’re putting on a non-stop show, and we’ve got performers and singers and dancers, and people are still leaving? That shows you there’s a challenge and there’s a problem with baseball. I compare baseball like a hot-dog stand. Right now we’ve got great condiments. The mustard, the ketchup, the relish, it’s great. But the hot dog still needs work. That’s where baseball’s at right now.
My challenge in the next few years is how can I create something like that, create a league, create baseball the way it should be. And then I think we’ll have everything set up perfectly to have success for many years to come.
Q: Are you today’s Bill Veeck?
Jesse: (laughs) I could never take that title. There’s obviously numerous innovators out there, and Bill Veeck was a legend and an icon. I have his poster in my office, a custom poster that says “Bill Veeck’s Innovation: I try not to break the rules, but merely to test their elasticity.” Bill Veeck is a mentor of mine, [as are] P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney. I hope I can wear his shoes and bring on more innovation every single day, but there’s a lot of great people in the industry like Mike Veeck and others who have done just as well and even better. I hope – I hope – I can wear his shoes one day and make the huge strides that he made in innovating baseball.